The Internet has become so much a part of our personal and professional lives, that it has changed the way businesses find and select service firms. Over the years, we have learned to turn to the web when we need a new accountant, lawyer, architect or consultant.
But the web is far more than a digital shopping mall for professional services. It’s also a rich educational resource. And educational content is the new currency of the professional services marketplace. Content marketing is the strategy that turns that content into profits.
To better understand what’s going on, let’s first take a look at some traditional ways services are sold and bought.
Traditional Marketing 101
In traditional services marketing, a firm goes out into the world and steadily builds awareness and trust—through networking, public speaking and word of mouth referrals. Eventually, someone who has had exposure to the firm and needs the firm’s services sets up a meeting to learn more. It may take many weeks or months before the relationship matures and a decision is made.
Or a business is in need of a particular service. An RFP is sent out to a broad swath of prospective service providers. Responses flood in. The buyer then spends the several weeks reviewing the proposals before scheduling interviews with the most promising firms. Many weeks later, a decision is made and work begins.
In both scenarios, the process of matching a firm to a buyer is fraught with inefficiency. The firms are not vetted until late in the process, which means a lot of time is wasted communicating with firms or prospective clients that may not be a good match.
Content Marketing—A Better Way
Today, a firm can communicate its expertise in a more direct and engaging way. And in the process, it can reach a much larger audience. Buyers get to know a firm and its approach to problem solving in a much more intimate way, so they understand what they will be getting before they make an inquiry.
The key to building these virtual relationships is content marketing, an online strategy that elevates thought leadership through the routine publication of free, valuable, educational content and using that content to attract new leads, nurture existing leads and build preference for the firm.
When a firm writes about topics that are relevant to its target clients, it accomplishes three things:
- Demonstrates a deep understanding of issues its prospects care about
- Engages its audience
- Builds trust.
The more often a firm produces relevant content, the more engagement it creates, and the more trusted it becomes. In many cases, leads that are nurtured through content marketing become “converts” to a particular firm’s approach or way of thinking. Sometimes they will even hire a firm they have been following without soliciting competitive bids.
Bottom line: a firm that builds a loyal readership has an easier time closing sales.
What is Content?
We find the most effective approach to content marketing is to provide a wealth of freely available material—no commitment, no registration, no cost. Most of this material will be short-format pieces, such as blog posts and articles.
So how do you get started? What kinds of content can you create?
For most firms, blogging is the easiest and most productive way to get started. Because blog posts can be any length and less polished than, say, a magazine article, they can be produced and published quickly. If commenting is enabled, blog posts also provide a great way to interact with your audience.
But blogs only scratch the surface. Here are some other important content marketing vehicles to consider as you retool your marketing plan:
- Webinars. By themselves, webinars offer a good way to demonstrate your firm’s expertise, educate your audience and cultivate interested leads. If you record your webinars, they can be added to your library of content so that web visitors can view them at any time.
- Articles and white papers. Perhaps the most familiar form of thought leadership, these medium-length pieces are still valuable. Unfortunately, they have a reputation for being dry. So do your best to make them an easy read.
- Social media. Social media, especially LinkedIn and Twitter, can be important channels to speak directly to your audience, answer questions and promote your educational material.
- E-newsletters. Many people prefer to receive educational content by email inbox. In return, you get their email address and the ability to expose them to more of your expert material.
- Ebooks. For the ultimate credibility boost, publish an in-depth study of a topic. Usually, you will want to put something this valuable behind a short registration form.
- Kits and guides. These medium-length pieces make terrific offers on your website, in pay-per-click ads and in email marketing campaigns. Put them behind a registration form so that you can collect leads.
There are many other formats you can use to package information, but these are some of the most popular and most effective.
At Hinge, we freely distribute our research studies, which is arguably the most valuable content we produce. We do so to generate valuable buzz and inbound links. We recommend such longer pieces require registration. That way the reader trades some basic contact information (sometimes little more than their name and email address) for the piece. The reader gets a valuable information and you build your list of leads. A fair trade.
What to Write
What do you write about? Won’t you be giving away your secrets? Well, you have to use your judgment here. If you have a proprietary process or technique that gives your firm a tangible competitive advantage, then you might want to keep that under wraps. Most firms, however, don’t have such an advantage.
Whatever your situation, there are almost always things you can write about that won’t compromise your competitive edge. In fact, most market leaders aren’t successful because they have a secret sauce. They are successful because clients and prospects perceive them as the most qualified choice. The best way to influence and cultivate such perceptions is to demonstrate your mastery of the material.
Writing is a lot easier if you have a pool of ideas to draw from. And an easy way to come up with ideas is to think about the problems you solve for your clients every day. You can probably think up a list of 10 or 20 issues without even trying. If you are having trouble, however, try brainstorming with colleagues. You don’t have to tackle big, philosophical questions. A practical answer to a common question can be pure gold.
The Importance of SEO
For content marketing to work, the pieces you write have to be findable. That means being found on Google. As you write material, keep this fact squarely in mind. Learn how search engines work and what search terms you have a chance to rank for.
Don’t Drop Everything
Content marketing should be a major component of your marketing plan. It’s the future of professional services marketing, and it has proven its effectiveness. But does that mean you should abandon the tactics that have worked so well for you in the past? Absolutely not. At least not yet.
Professional services are defined by their people. That means there is always value in face-to-face interaction. The credibility you generate online through the quality of your content can be enhanced when people meet you in person.
Our own research verifies that firms that generated 40 to 59 percent of leads online tend to grow the fastest. At least for now, a balanced approach to marketing is probably your best bet.