By Ann Gynn published July 25, 2017

How Professional Services Marketers Can Stand Out in a Crowded Marketplace

professional-services-marketers-stand-out-crowded-marketplaceInformation overload. Multiple decision-makers. Service of diverse industries. Ubiquity of thought leaders and experts. Industry or governmental regulations.

Those are just some of the pervasive challenges encountered by professional services marketers. Though you may be daunted, you still must clear these hurdles to reach your audience with content that will help them and set your firm up for success. Let’s get started.

Professional services cover law, architectural, accounting, investment firms, and more. Unlike a product-focused company, these businesses offer knowledge-based services.

Jonathan Kranz, author of Writing Copy for Dummies and a trainer on content marketing, offers this perspective: “As Harry Beckwith astutely observed, professional services companies have to ‘sell the invisible’ – intangible qualities of experience and expertise that resist easy ‘features and functions’ descriptions.”

Professional service firms aren’t selling a “box,” but a relationship – and that requires close communication and engagement, Jonathan observes.

In addition, professional services firms compete within crowds of competitors who offer comparable services.

“Expertise is a given, which is why ‘secret-sauce’ formulas, intended to create competitive distinction, rarely hold interest: Clients just don’t care,” Jonathan says. “They are less interested in the ‘what’ of your expertise than in the ‘how’ of your mutual relationship: What is it like to work with you? Will you be remote, imperious, and condescending? Or attentive, respectful, and deeply concerned with the pragmatic realities of their business?”

For prof svcs firms, expertise is a given. Clients care more about the “how” of the relationship says @jonkranz Click To Tweet

And clients are inundated with content around business, industry, and legal topics – a problem cited by 96% of law firms’ corporate clients in the 2017 State of Digital & Content Marketing Survey by Greentarget and Zeughauser Group. (Interestingly, less than half of marketers (47%) say information overload is a big problem for their audiences. Might be time to do a gut check yourself.)

Use your own experts

Jonathan advises marketers to develop tactics that focus on their people and processes – richly detailed case studies, in-depth testimonials, frank colleague-to-colleague articles, videos, podcasts, and blog posts from in-house experts.

For example, publish content around topics of urgent client interest based on in-house expert interviews. As Jonathan explains, “These interviews not only surface genuine insights, but they also represent participating experts as collegial, client-centered professionals who would be easy to work with – exactly the right takeaway every service provider wants to leave with a potential customer.”

TIP: Audiences appreciate urgent or alert-type content. In the 2017 law marketing survey, the highest-ranking tactic was client alerts, with 87% of respondents reporting them as valuable.

Say something original and valuable

West Monroe Partners, a business consulting firm, finds that survey or research-based content rates the highest with readership and gets the most ROI. “It’s because we have something original to say that the reader can’t get anywhere else,” says Christina Galoozis, content marketing manager. “We are investing in more proprietary surveys this year than ever before.

West Monroe also evaluates how its content stands up in the marketplace. It contracts with a third party to conduct an annual content audit, comparing the firm’s content against its competitors as well as best practices for consulting firms specifically.

Pro service marketing tip: Evaluate how your content stands up in the marketplace with an audit, says @galoozis Click To Tweet

Christina says the analysis is instrumental in shaping content priorities and strategies. Among the content changes implemented as a result:

  • Inclusion of author’s expertise up front to establish credibility
  • Cleaner design for white papers
  • Content that delivers on the title (and vice versa)

This year, West Monroe Partners is highlighting the value for the reader – explaining up front what the reader will learn or be able to do as a result of engaging in the content. “This is paramount for professional service readers who are busy and have a lot of priorities,” Galoozis says. “We must explain the value before they even start reading.”

Get an attitude

Emily Lund, content strategist at Modmacro, a web design and marketing firm, offers an example from one of its clients, a California architectural firm, M. Grisafe Architect.

The firm prefers to use a voice in its content that reflects how it operates. For example, in this blog post, it flips the dreaded, “Why can’t we just …?” question that most architects hate and instead explains why M. Grisafe Architect loves that question. Readers can easily see how M. Grisafe Architect is different than other bland, staid architectural firms.

Architecture Firm Blog Post

The architectural firm also forgoes boasting about its victories, and instead puts “wins” in a context more relevant to the reader. For example, instead of simply announcing its selection as a test firm for Long Beach’s new online architectural plan approval process, it wrote a blog post to explain why it was involved, what the problem was, and how the city’s new approval process helps solve a problem that affects a client’s project timeline.

By using content to illustrate who M. Grisafe Architect is and how it operates, the firm has a much better chance of attracting prospective clients who are the type of clients the firm enjoys working with.

Don’t be afraid in regulated world

Andrew Wang is the managing partner at Runnymede Capital Management. As a registered investment firm, it is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which means it can’t publish customer testimonials, and it needs to choose its words carefully to stay within regulated parameters. But, Runnymede still embraces content marketing.

While larger companies use compliance as the reason to restrict social media or other brand content, Runnymede sees the value as a measured risk and opportunity.

Compliance should not be an excuse to restrict social media or brand content, says @RunnymedeCap Click To Tweet

The investment firm began its blog four years ago. It’s tracked 300,000 cumulative visitors in the last three years. And this year it committed to publishing daily, which has brought positive feedback. And it has plans to launch a podcast.

Runnymede Investment Firm Blog

“Good content marketing from professional service firms is no different from a product company or agency in that it’s all about creating valuable, helpful content for your customer, including answers to your customer and potential customers’ questions,” Andrew says.

Think before creating content

The Greentarget and Zeughauser Group law marketing survey also reveals that only 26% of firms have a documented content strategy. That’s even less than B2B marketers (37%) and B2C marketers (40%) as cited in the Content Marketing Institute 2017 research.

Yet, a documented strategy has proven its worth in leading to greater content marketing effectiveness. As Katie Wolitarsky, digital/PR specialist at Workshop Digital advises, creating content shouldn’t be the starting (or ending) point. “You can create really good content, but after it’s live, what’s next? How do you get people to the content,” she asks.

That was the challenge her agency’s clients faced. The Virginia law firm originally saw the surface value in content marketing and hired a freelancer to write an article or two a week for its blog. But it didn’t have a strategy. The 192 posts generated only 2,921 visits or an average 15.2 visits per post.

Katie says her agency helped the firm take a more strategic perspective based on its goals and available resources. Since the firm didn’t have the budget for paid promotion, it sought to develop blog posts around keywords that had meaningful search volume, limited competition, and local relevance, according to Katie.

In the first nine months after the strategy was implemented, the newly crafted 20 posts earned 11,436 visits or an average 537 visits per post. More importantly to a locally focused law firm, its in-state visitors increased by almost one-third.

Address multiple audiences

Like many B2B companies, the professional service industry has a complex audience. “There are often three or more ‘roles’ in a company that influence the decision to partner with a professional services firm,” says Andrea Panno, content marketing manager, Sagefrog Marketing Group. “This adds difficulty to the process of segmenting an audience and mapping buyer personas for effective content marketing.”

While analyzing buyer activity is time-consuming, it is essential to developing content marketing pieces that speak to your audience’s needs, Andrea says.

Like many professional service firms, Henry+Horne serves many segments and industries. The financial services firm opted to create sections for its blog, which allows visitors to select the content that resonates with their situation, says Mike Jones, who runs Resound, the marketing agency that works with Henry+Horne.

HenryHorne

TIP: Sectioning a blog by niche can ensure that you stay on task and publish content that speaks directly to the audience, Mike says.

Conclusion

Content marketing by professional services firms must embrace their challenges head on. To reach the right audiences in a crowded world requires strategic thinking and creative implementation. To sell services, not products, requires content that mirrors the way the professional service firm works with its clients.

As Jonathan Kranz explains, “How you express your ideas is every bit as important as their substance. Tone, voice, look-and-feel – all these things should favorably represent what it’s like to work with you,” he says. “In this context, candor beats big ideas. Plain English trumps jargon.”

Spend a day at the professional services industry lab at Content Marketing World this September and return with more insights, ideas, and inspiration to tackle your unique challenges. Register today.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Ann Gynn

Ann Gynn edits the CMI blog. She also serves as the Tech Tools editor for Chief Content Officer magazine. Ann regularly combines words and strategy for B2B, B2C, and nonprofits, continuing to live up to her high school nickname, Editor Ann. Former college adjunct faculty, Ann also helps train professionals in content so they can do it themselves. Follow Ann on Twitter @anngynn or connect on LinkedIn.

Other posts by Ann Gynn

Join Over 200,000 of your Peers!

Get daily articles and news delivered to your email inbox and get CMI’s exclusive e-book Get Inspired: 75 (More) Content Marketing Examples FREE!

  • Bob Sable

    Excellent post, Ann. You’ve captured some of the biggest challenges professional services marketers face and have included some excellent examples of how marketers are overcoming them. Another challenge I can add: because most professional services bill by the hour, there is often heavy resistance to “wasting time” on non-billable work like marketing because there’s no simple way to demonstrate direct ROI. The billable hour rules. That’s why buy-in at the highest level of the company is essential for content marketing success.

    • Ann Gynn

      Great point, Bob. The compensation structure is a big challenge. And ROI can be so tough. 15 years ago, I worked on the marketing team for a global law firm that decided one day we should track ROI of marketing. In those pre-digital analytics days, here’s how they asked us to do it: If you work on a proposal or collateral that led to a new client, ask the attorney how much credit s/he would give to marketing in closing the deal. Surprisingly, no attorney gave marketing any credit 🙂

    • Andrea Lalinde

      Another way to get buy-in is to show how much pipeline the clients you’re engaging are worth. It really does open eyes when a client with an upcoming million-dollar project opens your email and reads a content piece relevant to the project you’ll be chasing. It’s also important to remember that the sales cycle is different and often much longer than the traditional B2C structure. So the content pieces should align with clients that are in the different phases of the sales cycle.

  • http://www.myrlandmarketing.com/ Nancy Myrland

    Really good article, Ann! I have worked in professional services since 1997, first as an in-house Director of Marketing at a law firm, then out on my own since 2002, advising lawyers and legal marketers on marketing, content, social and digital. Your points are right on target, which they would be, of course, because you spent time in-house and know professional services marketing. I am encouraged as I see movement these days in the acceptance and interest in content, social and digital in law firms. Marketers certainly are aware of the need and are in the midst of tackling the process within their firms. It is happening, albeit at very different speeds at different firms, but that is very much the same as we’ve seen with every innovation in legal that has been developed. It makes your and my worlds very exciting and NEVER boring, right? I’ve pulled out a few quotes from your post for a content marketing blog post I’m drafting on marketing in our highly-regulated environment. I have, of course, included links to your post! Have a good day!