If you’re a bit confused about marketing automation in the professional services, you are not alone. There are literally thousands of products out there with overlapping capabilities, complex functionality, and constantly evolving features. It’s no wonder that many firms struggle to implement expensive systems, only to be disappointed by the results.
In this post, we’ll try to clear away some of the confusion and lay down a path to success. Let’s start with what professional services marketing automation (MA) means.
Marketing Automation Defined
Marketing automation is the use of sophisticated software platforms to automate both routine and complex marketing processes, reducing costs and improving effectiveness. It allows firms to simultaneously personalize and scale their marketing programs.
The feature sets in marketing automation platforms vary widely. Some of the most common features include:
- Email marketing
- Forms and landing pages
- Database of leads, prospects, and clients (CRM)
- Campaign management and cross-platform integration
- Lead scoring and management
- Social media marketing
- Search engine optimization support
- Content marketing
The world of marketing automation is changing rapidly. Let’s review some of the trends driving those changes. These insights should help you anticipate emerging opportunities and inform your planning.
Marketing Automation Trends
1. Marketing automation adoption is growing fast.
The marketplace for B2B marketing automation has experienced rapid growth over recent years. As Figure 1 shows, it is reasonable to expect that trend to continue. That growth is clearly impacting professional services. Our most recent High Growth Study shows that 84% of professional services firms see marketing automation as a part of their strategy. Further, 22% of firms see MA as one of their top priorities for this year.
Figure 1. Global marketing automation software market, by enterprise size, 2014 – 2025 (USD Million)
This trend is not surprising given the importance of nurturing relationships and building trust in the professional services business development process. Increasing the visibility of one’s expertise is a key way to nurture prospects and win new clients — and marketing automation is ideally suited to support these goals.
2. The sophistication of the underlying technology is rapidly increasing and creating a knowledge gap.
As advanced technologies such as speech recognition, predictive analytics, sophisticated testing and artificial intelligence become more integrated into marketing automation software, these platforms will become more and more capable. Even today, these advanced systems often offer more functionality than most firms know how to apply. And this trend is only likely to get worse as more advanced features are added in the coming years.
This situation has created something of a knowledge gap — and many professional services firms understand they need to address it. Well over half of firms (57%) are planning to tackle this need with additional training or by engaging an outside resource. Firms that fail to make the most of their MA investment, however, are likely to experience disappointing results.
3. Industry-focused marketing automation platforms and applications are likely to proliferate.
As marketing automation vendors proliferate and competition intensifies we expect to see the introduction of more systems and applications targeted at a particular industry (or other niche) as a strategy. For example, Cosential offers a system designed specifically for the needs of AEC firms. And Higher Logic has built a platform to serve the unique needs of membership organizations. This movement toward specialization makes sense for the platform developers, who want to differentiate their products from the tidal wave of competing products, and it makes it easy for professional services firms to find a suitable MA platform for their clientele. We expect to see this trend toward specialization to continue.
4. Firms that do not embrace digital marketing are falling behind.
Marketing automation has grown out of the digital transformation of communications and evolving buyer expectations. As you might expect, professional services firms that embrace digital techniques tend to outperform those that do not.
The fastest growing firms are much more likely to embrace digital marketing strategies. And those that do not are at a competitive disadvantage. Their marketing activity is likely to be more costly, less effective and reach a smaller audience. In a highly competitive marketplace this is not an enviable position.
Marketing Automation Strategies
Marketing automation can help you accomplish many of your strategic marketing goals. The trick is to understand which strategies make sense for your firm. Understanding your strategic goals also helps you identify what metrics to track and optimize. Here are the strategies most aligned with the needs of professional services.
- Attracting more new leads. A very common goal for many firms, developing a flow of new leads is something that most MA systems are well suited for. Often this involves some combination of SEO-optimized content, social media and guest posting to drive visibility. With the ability to automate implementation and track sourcing across platforms, you can measure success and optimize your program accordingly.
- Better qualifying new leads. As you attract more prospects, some will be qualified and ready to engage. Others are far from it. How can you tell the difference? Part of the answer is in the content you are sharing. If it is well targeted, you will find that your better prospects will be naturally attracted to it because it speaks directly to their needs. You can also try lead scoring. Most systems with CRM capabilities will automatically assign leads a readiness score based on predetermined behavioral criteria. These two mechanisms work together to accomplish your strategic objective of cultivating better-qualified leads.
- Segmenting your database for better targeting and more personalization. All prospects have different needs. It doesn’t make sense to treat them the same. However, when you have a single gigantic list, it can be hard not to. That is one of the best uses of these systems. They provide tools to automatically segment your list by demographic or behavioral criteria. And when you layer criteria, your marketing strategy effectively becomes “personalized.”
- Nurturing your leads to develop better opportunities. Some professional services industries work on very long closing cycles. You could easily spend years waiting for a potential client to need your services. Professional services are not impulse purchases. Fortunately, managing a nurture or “drip” campaign is something these systems do well — so much of your middle-funnel nurturing can be automated. The timing and content of these “touches” can be programmed in advance so that little ongoing attention is required.
- Identifying sales-ready opportunities. At some point, many of the leads you have been nurturing will need the services you provide. If these individuals have been well nurtured, they will know how you can help them, and your firm will be top of mind. When the time is right, they will reach out to you. There are also a number of techniques to probe for interest. For example, you can configure the system to send out a free consultation offer from time to time. In this way, you can look for opportunities while minimizing your time investment.
- Making your expertise more visible. In the professional services we have a major marketing challenge. We sell expertise. As valuable as that is, however, expertise is invisible. So how can a prospective client learn about your expertise? The best way is to demonstrate it — to make it visible and tangible. This can be done by educating your audience, using blog posts, webinars, videos, public speaking, social media and the like to show people who are interested in your area of expertise how you solve problems like theirs. Marketing automation is an ideal tool for delivering this information to the right prospect at the right time.
- Improving client retention. Many professional services are episodic. Clients need a firm from time to time, but not continuously. From a firm’s perspective, maintaining an on-and-off client relationship when you are busy working with other clients can be difficult. Further, many past clients may not realize the full range of your firm’s expertise and seek out someone else to do work you could easily handle. Marketing automation, however, provides some relief by automating many of these ongoing interactions. Good programing outperforms good intentions.
- Tracking and optimizing marketing investment. Figuring out what works in a marketing context has always been challenging. The tracking capabilities of today’s modern MA platforms help answer that eternal question. Cross-channel integration allows you to track and optimize your strategies, providing the insights you need to improve your ROI.
- Increasing productivity of your marketing team. This is an easy one to score as a win. By their design and functionality, professional services marketing automation systems almost always have a dramatic impact on marketing team productivity. That’s what they were designed to do: take the repetitive drudgery out of marketing campaigns. Of course, they need to be set up initially — an often laborious process — but after that, the time savings accrue every day.
- Saving billable time. The battle between billable time and business development has long been a fixture of the “seller-doer” model. Potential clients want to meet and get to know whom they will be working with. As the person with the expertise, you are the product. So if a prospect is screened, qualified and nurtured in advance of interacting with the billable professional, that saves a lot of non-billable business development hours. Better-qualified, better-educated prospects maximize billable time.
When you reflect on this list of strategic marketing priorities, it is easy to see why marketing automation has enjoyed so much growth and innovation. It turns strategies that would be costly and hard to implement into practical realities.
The Marketing Automation Process
While the promise of automated marketing is music to many professionals’ ears, the reality is often very disappointing. There is a simple reason for this sad state of affairs.
Bad marketing, automated, is still bad marketing.
But there is a better way. We believe that many of the common problems associated with professional services marketing automation can be avoided by following a systematic process. Let’s run through the key steps.
Step 1. Research your target audiences.
The most effective marketing automation strategies are grounded in an accurate understanding of your target audiences. There is no better way to accomplish this than through structured, systematic research.
As practicing professionals, we feel that we know our clients well. But personal experience can easily lead you astray. You will likely be overconfident and miss blind spots in your understanding. Firms that do systematic research on their target audiences grow faster and are more profitable.
Where should you focus your research? As much as possible, you should try to understand the full client journey. A client satisfaction survey alone does not help you understand which issues motivate your clients and drive their firm selection process. Where do they go for new insights? Which conferences do they attend? This type of information will be invaluable as you build your automation strategy.
For a quick overview of the most productive areas of research, check out this post on the top business research questions. To dig deeper into the research process and understand which research approaches are best suited to your needs, download our guide to professional services research.
Step 2. Identify your strategic marketing goals.
Sadly, many firms approach marketing automation with only the foggiest idea of what specific business goals they want to accomplish (see Marketing Automation Strategies above). Let’s say you want to grow a specific practice or the firm as a whole. What should your strategic marketing goals be?
The obvious answer is that they should be aimed at solving the specific issues that are inhibiting growth. The research that you just completed in Step1 will be immensely helpful in providing answers. In one case, the issue may be insufficient visibility with your target audience. In another, it may be a depressed closing percentage. How can you tell the difference?
Start by organizing your analysis in the context of a marketing funnel (see Figure 2). Examine each stage of the process to determine where your practice or firm is falling short.
Figure 2. The marketing funnel
Do you have too few leads? Are they well qualified? Is your nurture process effective? Do they convert into business opportunities? Are they easy or difficult to close?
We also find it very useful to benchmark your performance against high-growth firms from within your industry. This exercise allows you to identify where you have strengths to build upon and where there are areas of weakness that need attention. Equipped with this information, you can formulate your strategic marketing goals and put them in their proper business context.
Step 3. Identify your marketing techniques.
The marketing techniques you select should be driven by your strategic marketing goals and the characteristics of your target audience. You should be able to find this in the research you did in Step1.
Lets say that your marketing challenge is low visibility within your target audience. What is the best way to increase visibility? First, try to discover what issues are they concerned about. What conferences do they attend? Do they prefer webinars or seminars? What social media are they using?
As you consider how to reach your audience, you will want to explore the full complement of professional services marketing techniques. The best results are typically achieved when you have a balance of traditional and digital techniques that fit both your audience’s preferences and your marketing strengths.
Fortunately, you have choices. Most traditional marketing techniques have digital analogues.
Figure 3. Online and offline marketing techniques
As Figure 3 illustrates, you can do face-to-face networking or social media — or both. Speaking events or webinars are both possible.
Don’t be swayed by your personal preferences or what your marketing automation vendor wants you to do. Your guidance should come from your audience profile and what they prefer. Marketing automation is useful in supporting many strategies. Your marketing strategy should drive your software selection, not the other way around.
Another criteria for selecting your marketing techniques is effectiveness. Some marketing approaches are simply more effective than others. Each year we conduct a study that identifies the most effective techniques for professional services firms. By combining this perspective with your audience’s preferences, you can find a set of techniques that give you a real advantage over your competitors, most of which continue to market “the way we have always done it.”
Step 4. Develop your content strategy.
This is one of the most frequent failure points in unsuccessful MA deployments. Delivering bad content more efficiently is hardly a win. Garbage in, garbage out.
MA automates and personalizes the delivery of your content. It doesn’t tell you what that content should be. That’s the job of your content strategy.
Your content must accomplish two tasks. First it must be relevant to your audience. That usually means that it deals with a topic of deep interest to your target. It could be a problem that their whole industry is struggling with, for example. But not every issue your target audience wrestles with is relevant to the services your firm offers.
And chance are, not all of the services you offer are of equal value to your firm. Some services have higher margins or naturally lead to an expanded relationship. So the issues you choose to write and speak about must also be relevant to your firm’s marketing goals.
The resulting overlap is illustrated in Figure 4.
You are trying to identify the issues that serve two goals: 1) they are of great interest to your prospects; and 2) your firm’s key services help solve them.
There is another dimension you must consider when developing your content strategy. Your content must address all of the stages of the marketing funnel (see Figure 2 above). You should have content that attracts new prospects, engages prospects over time, and convinces ripe opportunities to become your clients. Where many MA programs stumble is that they focus only on content suitable for one stage — attracting interest, for instance, but not nurturing or closing.
Step 5. Organize the marketing flow.
At this point, you know what marketing techniques you will use, what issues and topics you want to focus on and which types of content you will deploy for each stage of your pipeline. Now it is time to organize the flow through the marketing automation system.
This activity is often referred to as workflows within the MA world. What behavior triggers a follow-up action? When a website visitor clicks on a specific offer what happens? What data is tracked? What follow-up content is sent? When is it sent? What other action is taken?
As you can see, documenting workflows involves a lot of detail and a lot of specificity. That can be a challenge. But the benefits are real. Once set up, your MA system is completely scalable and works around the clock. It delivers your content and any follow-up messages automatically. No need to have a team of support people on staff. Your MA system never sleeps and never “forgets” to follow-up.
Step 6. Select and program your marketing automation platform.
At last, it is time to select your marketing automation platform. I know, you probably started this journey by selecting a platform months ago. That might have been a bad idea. Why? Platform capabilities vary so much that unless you know exactly what functionality you need (which you just determined in the last step) you are in danger of selecting an ill-suited solution.
Sometimes systems lack a key feature, or they may be overly complex and expensive for your needs. Thoroughly understanding what you need a system to do prevents these embarrassing mismatches. Also, don’t forget to consider what sort of tracking capabilities you will need. Having the right analytics empowers you to optimize your marketing program over time.
Once you have selected a system, you can complete the programming. This means configuring the workflows and establishing functions such as lead scoring criteria and the timing of follow-ups. If this is your first attempt at automating workflows, some of these decisions may well be best guesses. Don’t worry too much about that, as you will soon have the opportunity to test and improve upon them.
Step 7. Optimization cycle — test, track and adjust.
Up to this point, our discussion of the marketing automation process has focused on the selection and setup of your system. Now it is time to start harvesting the benefits by optimizing it’s operation and performance.
If you have followed the steps outlined above you have a thoughtful and well-documented strategy. How is it performing?
Start by tracking the initial performance of the system. What is happening to website visits? How many downloads are you getting? What is your conversion percentage?
While you can track myriad variables, we recommend that you start simple and focus on a just a few key metrics. Those will be the metrics that reflect the strategic goals you established earlier.
Fortunately, many modern MA platforms come with robust reporting tools and dashboards. These provide good starting places and allow you to establish baselines for performance.
Once you have established your baseline performance levels, you can begin to test and optimize. Brainstorm ideas for improving performance. Then test them to determine whether your experimental improvement actually makes a difference. Some systems provide testing tools built-in — for example, tools that allow you to A/B test two versions of an email or landing page.
When you find a variation that outperforms the baseline, the winner becomes the new baseline or “control” that you will try to improve upon in subsequent tests. In this way, you will be able to troubleshoot issues and optimize performance.
A Final Thought
Marketing automation here to stay, and before long it will be a standard part of all professional services marketing programs. When properly implemented it is a way to both personalize and scale your marketing strategy. It is also well suited to building the awareness of your firm and establishing trust over time, which makes it a great match for any professional services firm.
Of course, there are challenges and pitfalls. No MA system will turn bad messaging into good leads. Your strategy must be built on a solid understanding of your target audiences and your firm’s strengths and weaknesses. And there is that yawning skills gap. Platforms are only as effective as the wisdom and skills of the team that sets up and operates them.
- Ready to dive in and implement a proven competitive strategy at your firm? Take our Visible Firm® course through Hinge University and turn your firm into a high-growth leader.
- If you’ve ever struggled to differentiate your firm from your competitors, our newest online course is for you: Find Your Competitive Advantage: Differentiation, Positioning & Messaging.
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