The two most effective ways to engage a business audience are improving thought leadership and using a multichannel message strategy, according to marketing research firm Marketing Sherpa (www.marketingsherpa.com). In other words, have something valuable to say and say it consistently via several methods.
These are proven strategies that firms in the A/E/C and environmental consulting industries are perfectly positioned to use to become visible leaders in their markets and better integrate their marketing and business development. Yet too many firms remain focused on parroting out projects won and people promoted instead. And, unless you’ve just hired the world’s foremost expert on health care design or geothermal engineering, clients aren’t listening much anymore.
Many firms fail to capitalize because they can’t seem to get out of their own way. It happens in three ways: they don’t understand what these strategies actually entail, they don’t understand the ROI, or they fail in the execution. (Sometimes, it’s all three.)
Thought leadership made simple
To boil it down, thought leadership is born in the intersection between what keeps your clients up at night and the value you bring as architects, engineers, or environmental consultants. It’s sharing your expertise, your experience, and your stands on important questions in a way that is useful to your market and not self-serving.
Content marketing is the multichannel way that you deliver those messages. Marketing firm HubSpot (www.hubspot.com) defines it as “a marketing program that centers on creating, publishing, and distributing content for your target audience to attract new customers.” It’s putting your messages into the hands of your clients and potential clients on a regular basis. It’s how you start a deeper conversation with your market about what’s important to them, not about what is going on in your firm. It’s the reputation you build by offering actionable tips, case studies, best practices, advice, benchmarking data, and information related to the challenges your clients face every day.
What do you focus on? That’s the easy part, though many firms overthink it. You zero in on the questions your clients ask, the issues they deal with, the hot topics on their minds. You may need help to extract those ideas from your staff and massage them into consumable topics but, within an hour or two, you can easily elicit several years’ worth of topics. (If your principals and project managers don’t know what keeps your clients up at night, you have bigger problems than how to get interesting content out the door!)
Is it worth it?
These strategies work because there’s a deeper business case than simply building a more visible brand. It can create synergy between business development and marketing. All firms are constrained by the number of hours in the day to conduct business development calls/meetings. Client acquisition requires that you rely on the market position of your firm as an experienced expert. Content marketing enables that for you, 24/7, by doing the following:
- increasing and expanding your visibility;
- positioning the firm’s expertise in the market;
- differentiating you from the competition;
- starting conversations within your market;
- illustrating that you understand their universe;
- sending clear messages about who you are, what you do, and how you can help;
- populating your website and improving search optimization; and
- generating leads.
There are valuable trickle-down benefits, too. When connected to a media outreach effort, your content goes straight to potential clients who may not be on your radar (or your firm on theirs). It can also help codify the message you send in all of your interactions with clients, from helping seller/doers have stronger sales conversations, to influencing what’s on your website and in your proposals, cover letters, and marketing qualifications. It fosters deeper one-on-one conversations with clients.
Even more critical, creating an effective program forces necessary conversations that have the potential to transform the way you do business, if you let them. It forces you to examine internally what makes you different (hint: it’s typically not “quality” and “service”) and pushes you to think about how you communicate that.
Strategize, start small, and succeed.
Using these strategies effectively takes work, but it doesn’t need to be as difficult as many firms make it. I get frustrated when I see firms try to tackle too much or assign their billable, technical staff to plan and develop their content — this can be a fatal mistake. (Consider that Mashable reports that 62 percent of businesses outsource content creation and B2B Marketing Insider reports only 44 percent have a documented strategy.)
Your subject-matter experts have valuable input, but they’re also the heart and soul of your firm’s client service and business development. They’re overloaded already and often don’t — or can’t — prioritize this activity. They resist because they see the opportunity cost of tying up hours that they could be working on billable activities or building relationships with their clients. And most don’t have the type of writing skills that today’s digital marketing environment demands.
To succeed, these programs need a champion, ideally a strong marketing, business development, or market-sector leader. Many firms have problems with goal-setting and accountability, so clear accountability for getting it done on a regular basis is a must.
According to Marketing Sherpa’s Benchmark Survey, websites, email newsletters, webinars, case studies, articles, press releases, blogs, events, and social media are the most effective and most used channels. Rather than try to do it all, it’s smart to choose your top three, establish a clear plan, and create a sustainable content calendar before you jump in.
One model that works well, especially for those with limited marketing staff, is to collaborate with an outside strategist and a writer experienced in marketing and business writing for professional services firms. They can guide your planning and interview your subject-matter experts, clients, and others and develop content for your review. That saves time, money, and lost opportunities.
Every firm has a wealth of strong content just waiting to be tapped and packaged. Are you leveraging yours?
Rich Friedman, president of Friedman & Partners (www.friedmanpartners.com) has 20 years of experience in strategic market planning, market research and analysis, public relations and positioning strategy, and business development consulting and training for technical and marketing professionals.