By Clare McDermott published February 24, 2011

How Professional Services Firms Use Content Marketing

The B2B Content Marketing 2010: Professional Services Industry Report is based on research conducted by Junta42 and MarketingProfs in September 2010. I, for one, was surprised by the findings. I always assumed professional service firms were leaders in thought leadership marketing. They practically invented the discipline, after all. When I think of which companies I believe are most sophisticated and successful in using content to support sales and brand awareness, I think of McKinsey, Booz & Company and PwC. Turns out, professional service firms are not more likely to use content marketing—in fact, they trail their peers in a number of important ways.

First, let’s talk turkey: the composition of respondents. Of the 1,124 respondents, 112 self-identified as working for or owning a professional service firm. Respondents were very heavily weighted to smaller practices:

  • 41% work for firms with fewer than 10 employees (we can assume some are sole practitioners)
  • 39% work for firms with between 50 and 249 employees
  • 9% work for firms with between 250 and 4,999 employees
  • 8% work for firms with more than 5,000 employees.

Keep in mind, therefore, that this report reflects the experiences of small- to small/mid-size firms. Another way to consider this: 80% of PSF respondents hail from firms with fewer than 250 employees, versus 67% across all industries. For this reason, consider comparisons with great caution.

What do we know about PSF marketers?

Eight out of 10 professional service firms use content marketing as compared to nine out of 10 marketers across all industries. PSF marketers closely mirror the larger population in terms of adopting specific content marketing tactics. Their top five tactics are:

  • Social media (80% of PSF marketers use social media versus 79% of cross-industry average)
  • Articles (78% PSF adoption versus 78% cross-industry average)
  • eNewsletters (65% PSF adoption versus 61% cross-industry average)
  • In-person events (64% PSF adoption versus 62% cross-industry average)
  • Blogs (63% PSF adoption versus 51% cross-industry average)—an interesting anomaly.

Professional service firms are most likely to use LinkedIn (62% use the platform versus 51% on average across industries) to distribute their content via social media channels.

The content marketing confidence gap

Perhaps the most interesting findings have to do with “content marketing effectiveness.” Marketers were asked not only whether they used certain tactics, but also whether they found those tactics to be effective. For PSF marketers (as well as all other marketers) we found what we called a “confidence gap.” That is, while marketers use particular tactics in large numbers, those tactics are not always considered effective. For example:

  • 80% of professional service firms use social media but only 35% believe it to be effective (defined as a rating of “4” or “5” on a 5-point scale)
  • 78% use articles but only 48% rate that tactic as effective.

We also found certain tactics enjoyed high effectiveness ratings even though fewer marketers use them. For example, 64% of professional service firms use in-person events as a tactic but 85% believe that tactic is effective. (You can find much more detail in the report itself.)

Overall, PSF marketers are much more optimistic about the effectiveness of their content tactics than the cross-industry average. Even so, marketers are not using many measurement criteria to support this belief. The top five measurements PSF marketers use to analyze the success of their content marketing program are:

  • Qualitative feedback (53%)
  • Web traffic (52%)
  • Direct sales (52%)
  • Sales lead quality (44%)
  • Sales lead quantity (37%)

The use of measurement criteria among PSF marketers is modest at best.


Again, the report must be viewed carefully because the respondents represented smaller firms. Even so, it’s clear that content marketing as a discipline is still not yet well understood by most professional services marketers. The low effectiveness ratings for many content marketing tactics can be attributed to either a disenchantment with that tactic,   simple confusion about how best to use the tactic or even how best to determine its effectiveness (I would wager the latter).

Another important point is this: the report provides a snapshot in time, and I tend to think the most value will come from viewing the trend line. Are marketers moving to certain tactics over others—particularly those viewed as more effective? Are they becoming more astute about measurement? Goals?

Are you a PSF marketer? What tactics do you find most effective? Do you experience the same “confidence gap”—using specific content marketing tactics but feeling perhaps they are not meeting your needs?

Author: Clare McDermott

Clare McDermott is the co-founder and head of strategy at Mantis Research. Follow her @clare_mcd.

Other posts by Clare McDermott

  • Patricia Redsicker

    Great article Clare – I’m always intrigued by this confidence gap. I think that any effort that does not produce immediate results can produce doubt. Content is no different – it takes time to leave a positive mark and I think the issue of confidence is resolved with time.

  • Bob Leonard

    Clare – I too would have thought PSFs would be heavily into content marketing. Maybe, because what they sell is knowledge, they feel they’d be giving away the store by publishing relevant and useful content? It’d be interesting to explore that. I’d advise them that no matter how much it goes against their grain, they need to do it. It’s a great way to establish thought leadership and build trust.

    • Nick Stamoulis

      I like your theory Bob, that they are afraid to give away too many trade “secrets”. However, they really are missing a great way to promote themselves and their knowledge. Content marketing really is a great way to be seen as an expert in the field. There are ways to distribute content without giving it all away for free.

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  • AquteIntel

    Bob, your comment about giving away the store is interesting because that’s one of the things that set aside the McKinsey Quarterly, at least in the early days – they weren’t afraid to give away the store because it just made them seem brighter and more confident.

  • Lee Frederiksen

    Loved your research report. I feel like it really gives the reader several great perspectives and points the way for some “hidden” opportunities that folks have not been taking full advantage of. It inspired me to do a post on it
    Great content! Thanks…lwf

  • Jeff Pundyk

    Clare, interesting data, but seems like you discount your own caveats…seems to me that the phenomenon you’re describing is not necessarily a professional services issue, but rather a small business issue. it’d be interesting to know how those PSF of 249 and lower compare with equally sized companies in other industries vs those 250 and up compared to their peers in other industries. I’d guess there’d be consistency between the small companies and speculate that the larger PSFs exceed their contemporaries. (full disclosure: I was publisher of The McKinsey Quarterly for 10 years.)

  • Clare McDermott

    That’s a great question, Jeff. We did not pull the numbers that way (ie. industry crossed with company size for each answer) because as you can imagine, you begin to lose your sample size once you drill down to that level of detail. Respondents from PSFs as well as the marketing/advertising industry were much more likely to hail from small-to-mid companies while other industries were most heavily weighted to mid-size companies. Just for fun (totally unscientific, btw), I scanned the difference between those two (PSF vs. Mktg/Adv) as they are nearly mirror images in terms of company size mix. Their usage of specific content tactics are surprisingly different. As you would imagine, marketing/adv are much heavier users of social media. Other differences are less expected. Here’s a quick sample:
    In-person events (PSF 64%; ADV 50%)
    E-newsletters (PSF 65%; ADV 58%)
    Webinars/webc (PSF 52%; ADV 28%)
    Videos (PSF 37%; ADV 39%)
    Blogs (PSF 63%; ADV 67%)

    So in answer to your question, yes, I did insert caveats because I feared the influence of smaller firms. But I think we still don’t know whether company size exerted out-size influence. I’m hoping we are able to pull in more PS firms next summer for the survey and so get some better answers.

    • Jeff Pundyk

      thanks for the thoughtful reply. the added data makes sense — each industry is doing what comes naturally, with PSF leaning on in-person. btw, I don’t think we can underestimate the differences between how big companies act versus small, across all dimensions — not just marketing. They are very different animals. thanks again for the thought provoking post and quick reply.

  • Christine

    We’re a PSF who ironically, provides custom content to large corporations. We use content-marketing nearly exclusively, with trade shows being the only exception. Very interesting articl, thanks Clare

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