If you are a new CEO or managing partner, recently tapped to lead your firm into the future, you’ve got plenty to worry about: mastering day-to-day operations, building staff morale, evaluating your service mix, addressing changes in the marketplace—maybe even turning around a struggling business.
Typically, marketing gets little notice in the initial months of a leadership transition as more “urgent” matters demand your attention. But in recent years, marketing has undergone a fundamental—even radical—change, and it’s potential to affect a professional services firm’s fortunes are profound. More often than not, however, this potential goes untapped as leaders fail to appreciate how taking a new approach to marketing can make an enormous positive difference.
In this article, I describe this revolutionary approach to marketing, why it is so relevant to new leaders like you and what steps you need to take now to start your firm on the road to greater visibility, growth and profits.
But I’d like to begin this journey at the end. What’s the likely payoff for retooling your marketing machine? And why do it now, when there are so many other priorities competing for your time and energy?
Benefits of High-Growth Marketing
My colleagues and I have been studying high-growth professional services firms for the past ten years. This ever-growing body of research is helping us understand what the most successful firms do differently than average firms. According to our most recent High-Growth Study, these firms enjoy significant advantages over their no-growth peers:
- Median annual growth rate of 34.3%
- Twice the profitability (20% versus 10%)
- Higher median revenue per employee ($180,000 versus $152,000)
- Much higher levels of visibility and perceived expertise
- A 215% increase on average in online leads within the first year
These are typical numbers. Some firms, of course, experience even more impressive performance. And their secret isn’t better people or processes. Instead, it’s a commitment to a new way of marketing, one that emphasizes thought leadership and visibility over personal connections and networking. In short, what you know is more important than whom you know.
Making this transition to knowledge-based marketing means thinking about and implementing marketing differently. And there is no more perfect moment to institute this kind of change than during a leadership transition. This is your opportunity to transform your new firm.
How Is Modern, High-Growth Marketing Different? And How Does it Work?
Unlike its traditional antecedents, modern marketing is no longer an isolated outpost tasked with supporting sales. It’s deeply integrated into the entire business, and it changes the way business development is performed. In fact, it penetrates to the very heart of the professional organization — its corps of experts.
To understand why today’s high-growth approach is revolutionary, it helps to contrast it with conventional professionals services marketing. Traditional marketing focuses on three goals:
- Building brand awareness
- Promoting the features and benefits of the firm’s services and products
- Creating personal relationships and nurturing them through repeated contact over time
Let’s take a moment and examine these goals one by one.
Firms typically tackle the brand awareness problem by investing in advertising (print, radio/TV, online banner ads), sponsorships, PR and other broadly targeted tactics. Because these techniques are passive and easy for their audiences to ignore, they require many repeated exposures to make an impression on people. What’s more, firms have no way to time these exposures to coincide with the moment when a viewer actually needs the service. As a result, a very high percentage of these exposures are wasted.
Standard operating procedure in traditional marketing is to promote the products and services that a firm sells. After all, you can’t sell something your prospects don’t know about. So firms invest in brochures, sales slicks and detailed web copy to describe and support the sales of their offerings. Here’s the problem: if these products and services aren’t substantively different from what competitors offer, these materials have little persuasive power on their own.
To address that problem, traditional professional services firms spend a great deal of time establishing and building personal relationships. They attend networking events, treat prospects to meals or rounds of golf and travel to conferences and trade shows to get more face time with their buyers and potential referral sources. Without question, this approach works. But it comes with a significant downside. The number of prospects that a firm’s business develop personnel can cultivate is limited by their available time and interpersonal skills. As a result, the growth potential of a traditionally marketed firm is constrained by the size and talents of its business development team.
Compare that approach to high-growth marketing.
A modern, high-growth approach to marketing begins with a somewhat different set of goals:
- Share knowledge freely to demonstrate expertise and establish trust
- Leverage the power of the internet to build visibility and reach vast new markets
- Nurture prospects with a variety of valuable content until they are ready to buy
Now, let’s take a tour of these goals in order and explore how a high-growth firm achieves them.
Education lies at the foundation of high-growth professional services marketing. And in today’s information-rich world, people expect that education to be, for the most part, free. Savvy firm executives know that the most effective way to build trust—a critical prerequisite before any company will buy from you—is to give buyers a taste of their firm’s expertise.
Instead of spending hours each week working a room of strangers, these firms’ top experts blog, write articles and speak on topics that are highly relevant to their target audiences. They are positioned as thought leaders (what we at Hinge call Visible Experts®) who enhance the reputations of their firms while becoming more visible, themselves.
These experts publish much of their material online. They know that most of today’s buyers reflexively check Google first whenever they have a problem to solve, so the experts diligently optimize their open-access materials (such as blog posts) for online search. That way, people who are interested in their expertise are able to find them with a simple Google search. While only a small percentage of these readers will ever be qualified prospects, the number of businesses that use online search in this way is large enough to provide a healthy stream of high-quality potential clients. These individuals may not be ready to buy today, but many of them will need services like yours in the future. And here’s the beautiful part: these readers will come from every corner of the nation and the world. Firms that have had local or regional reputations in the past suddenly have greatly expanded prospects.
To turn blog readers into leads you need to capture some personal information. Most interested readers are willing to exchange a small amount of data about themselves (say, their name, email address and company) for a piece of content they find valuable. High-growth firms produce these high-value pieces on a regular basis and offer them up to their blog readers and other web visitors.
Once they’ve captured a reader’s email address, firms can begin nurturing them. They do this with helpful, non-spammy email marketing — the kind that provides readers with more of what they want. In this case, that means more free educational content, such as articles, guides, e-books, webinars, videos and more. Over time, these leads begin to depend on the firm’s expert knowledge. And when these individuals are ready to buy services, the firm they have come to trust will be at the top of their list. In many cases, they will hire the firm without looking at anyone else.
Pretty great, no?
Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that high-growth marketing is purely content based. Our research clearly shows that firms that do a mix of traditional and online marketing outperform those that do online marketing alone. But the offline techniques they choose generally support a thought-leadership platform (think speaking engagement and partnership marketing). Of course, if something unrelated to thought leadership is working for you (say, phone marketing or trade shows), you should keep doing it — but make it part of a balanced program.
We have also identified a few characteristics commonly found in high-growth firms. For one, these firms tend to be highly specialized, offering 40% fewer services on average than their no-growth peers. They are usually well differentiated. And many of them conduct frequent (at least quarterly) research on their target markets, giving them exceptional insights into their marketplace.
Why it’s Important to Act Soon
Now that you understand how a high-growth program works, why is it so important for you — an incoming managing partner or CEO — to embrace it at this moment? Why the urgency?
Whenever there is a leadership transition, everyone in an organization expects change. They expect you to bring new ideas, perhaps even exciting, radical ones. At no point during your term in leadership will your staff be as receptive to transformational change as they are right now.
Converting from the comfortable inefficacy of a traditional marketing program to a high-performance system that demands new skills and a new mindset can be tricky, especially if people in your organization feel threatened or inconvenienced by the change. You will have the greatest chance of success at the beginning of your leadership term, when personnel in your organization are at least somewhat prepared for — and hopeful about — a seismic event.
There is another reason, too. The high-growth approach to marketing affects many fundamental parts of your business:
- How your experts spend their time. They will devote more of their business development time to educating people than to networking and selling. They will do more writing, speaking and webinars.
- How their advice is received by clients and prospects. As they write and speak on topics your clients care about, your experts will become respected, trusted authorities. When clients hire them, their recommendations tend to be accepted more readily and with greater enthusiasm.
- Your ability to close business. It only gets easier as your reputation and visibility increase. As I mentioned earlier, you will find yourself in more no-bid situations, as well. That means deals, on average, will close more quickly, too.
- Whom you target as clients. High-performance firms are choosy about their clients. And their heightened reputations usually create the headroom to support this pickiness. If you are smart, you will build this selectivity into your market positioning, raising your perceived value.
- What services you offer. You may find your firm narrowing your service offerings as you focus on the things you are known for and do best. High-growth firms often approach their service mix very strategically, preferring to pursue a niche rather than broad coverage.
- How you differentiate your firm. As your expertise becomes more visible, you will discover that you have more tools to distinguish your firm from more conventional competitors. Differentiating your firm will not only be easier, it will be easier to prove.
All of these things will make your leadership role easier. As your marketing and clearer positioning gain momentum and your visibility begins its steady ascent, you may find that many initial challenges—such as morale and financial performance—may melt away.
The high-growth approach to marketing that I’ve outlined above equips you during your leadership transition with a wide-reaching and energizing strategy. You can begin your tenure with an exciting, positive message and a clear vision that will position your firm for long-term success, evolving it from a service provider to a high-profile knowledge leader.
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