Written by: Aaron Taylor
What’s the best way to market your firm?
While that may sound like a trick question, recent research has produced tangible, practical answers that can help firms make smarter marketing decisions. And a notable theme of these findings is that every professional services firm needs a digital content strategy to address the way modern buyers look for professional advice and services.
Many traditional, “tried-and-true” marketing techniques (think sponsorships, face-to-face networking events, print advertising, trade shows) no longer generate sufficient results to sustain a growing practice. Even firms that embrace online marketing often do it wrong, wasting precious time and money.
So how should you market your firm? And where should you be spending your marketing budget?
Before we can tackle those questions, we need to understand how buyers behave in today’s market.
A Marketplace in Transition
The way people find and select professional services is changing quickly. And this transition has real implications on how firms like yours should approach marketing.
For instance, today’s service buyers ask for referrals less often than in the past. In fact, referrals grew only 9% in the last two years when they had previously dropped 16% over the previous five year period. This means that the almighty referral—the holy grail of business development for so many decades—is starting to lose its primacy as the business world evolves.
Today’s buyers also say they value professional services 33% more. However, the relevancy of these services has dropped by more than 10.5% since 2020. (Data from the Inside the Buyer’s Brain, Fourth Edition research report.)
What’s going on?
As a younger, more tech-comfortable generation moves into companies’ buyer and influencer roles, they bring different behaviors and expectations with them. Accustomed to using Google and social media tools at home, they arrive in the workplace expecting to find valuable, free advice online, as well as an array of easy-to-find buying options. They also use these tools to vet their buying options—reviewing potential vendors’ websites and asking peers in social media for their opinions and experiences.
The data shows that buyers are increasingly searching online for business-related insights and help—and they do so at a higher rate than just a year before. As digital tools get even better at meeting buyers’ expectations, these trends are likely to continue into the future.
To address changing buyer behavior, firms need to adopt a thoughtful digital content strategy—one that reaches these tech-savvy people at every stage of their buyer journey.
But what exactly do we mean by “digital content strategy”?
What is a Digital Content Marketing Strategy?
A digital content marketing strategy is a plan that helps a business create and distribute digital content to reach new audiences, build greater credibility, generate more leads and achieve its overall strategic marketing objectives. This plan connects firms with the increasing number of potential buyers who are using digital tools and looking online to solve their business challenges. Often, it is part of a larger content marketing strategy, which also includes non-digital tactics, such as public speaking and writing books.
Digital content can take a wide range of guises, such as blog posts, online articles, webinars, educational videos, online tutorials, courses and podcasts. Because content can be time-consuming to produce, many strategies include only a subset of these options.
A digital content strategy, however, is more than a collection of content pieces. A strategy also dictates what topics the pieces will address, how often they are produced, how they are exposed to the appropriate audiences and how each piece of content can potentially convert the consumer into a business lead.
Why is Digital Content Important?
Today’s buyers are increasingly going online to find their next professional services partner. While in some cases this means they searched online for their problem and Google returned a list of possible vendors, more often than not the path from problem to problem solved is longer and less direct.
A professional services sale can take months or years to develop. When businesses have less urgent problems, they tend to allocate fewer resources to them—often going online to research the problem and potential solutions. In the process, they encounter websites, blogs and free educational materials that put their problem in context and describe various solutions. Some consumers will find a source of expertise they trust so much that they return again and again for more information and advice. This behavior is the reason a digital content strategy is so effective.
Over time, these returning consumers (we use the word “consumers” rather than “readers” because the content they consume could be text, video or audio) begin to rely on and trust their information source. When the business challenge eventually becomes urgent, one firm will jump immediately to their mind—the firm they have been following for months or years.
Studies by the Hinge Research Institute have shown that the most successful firms usually use a mix of digital and traditional tools in their marketing strategies. Increasingly, however, this mix favors digital techniques. Figure 1 shows that many of the most common traditional marketing techniques have digital equivalents.
Figure 1. Digital tactics (green) often have traditional marketing counterparts (blue)
High-performing firms are moving toward digital because they understand their buyers. Today, almost 70 percent of buyers say they use digital channels to research their business problems (see Figure 2).
And they are using digital at similar proportions to evaluate professional services firms so they can make informed decisions (see Figure 3).
The implications of these data are huge. An overwhelming percentage of professional services buyers are using digital channels and tools to find their vendor candidates, then using digital tools again to evaluate them. If your firm isn’t visible in these channels—and you aren’t delivering messaging that buyers want to hear—you are going to be at a severe competitive disadvantage.
Digital is the marketing medium of today and tomorrow. Established firms that think nothing has changed are in for a rude shock.
Now, you may be wondering what goes into a digital content strategy? And how do you create one? That’s what we’ll dive into next.
Components of a Digital Content Strategy
DEFINE YOUR BUSINESS GOALS
Every business strategy has to start with your goals, and your digital content strategy is no different. And if you don’t have clear goals today, you should ask yourself what you would like to change about your business. Here are a few questions to get you started:
- Do we need more quality leads?
- Do we want to expand our reach into new geographic markets? Or do we want to build market share in our local area?
- Is our reputation in need of a boost?
- Do we hope to move away from commodity pricing and charge premium fees for our services?
- Do we want to evolve our business and become known for a different set of services?
- Are we trying to grow our business? Or do we focus on raising our margins?
Whatever your business goals are, you can use them to orient your strategy and help you decide if a particular decision, technique or tool is going to take you closer to your destination. With these goals in your sights, you’ll also have a better sense of what metrics and outcomes you will need to monitor.
RESEARCH YOUR AUDIENCE
To deliver an effective digital content strategy, you’ll need to produce content that your prospective clients actually care about. And aside from mindreading, there is only one reliable way to get inside their heads: conducting research on your audience.
At Hinge, we’ve learned that most firms have little real knowledge of their clients’ changing needs. By conducting research, however, they can learn what issues are important today, what clients are worrying about in the near future and what services they wish you offered.
Now, not all research is alike. You will need to decide up front what type of research you will conduct to get useful insights. To understand your audience, we would recommend only two types of research:
- Surveys. The king of quantitative market research. While the paper survey isn’t quite dead, most surveys today are conducted online. Online survey platforms give you the ability to branch your questions depending on how a subject responds, randomize the order of questions, send automated invitations and reminders, and other useful tools.
- Interviews. Live interviews are the gold standard of qualitative research for a good reason: they give the interviewer the latitude to ask follow up questions and dig deeper when there is more to learn. Interviewees tend to give more detailed and nuanced answers than they would in a standard text-based survey. While you could conduct interviews in person, it is far more practical to do them by phone (or video conference).
If you can afford to go the interview route, we encourage you to do so. While more expensive than online surveys, personal interviews generate the highest quality information. But surveys can produce a wealth of useful data, too. For the best of both worlds, use both techniques—you can reach a large sample and extract deep qualitative insights.
WHO SHOULD YOU RESEARCH?
Who should you be talking to in the course of your research? Consider reaching out to these three key audiences:
- Current clients. Within this group, think about what roles, industries or other segments you need to hear from.
- Influencers. These are the folks who have critical input into the final selection decision but are not the final decision makers.
- Referral Sources. These are people who recommend firms to prospective buyers. Keep in mind that they may work in a different industry from your clients (for instance, lawyers often recommend accountants to their clients, and vice versa).
WHO SHOULD CONDUCT THE RESEARCH?
While you may be tempted to reduce costs by conducting the research yourself, there are good reasons to hire an outside firm or professional researcher to do it for you. First, your clients don’t want to hurt your feelings, so they may be less than honest with you or try to tell you what they think you want to hear. Second, you probably don’t have the skills to get the most from your research. A skilled interviewer can coax a surprising amount of valuable information from a subject, and she knows how to probe for deeper insights when necessary. And third, it takes skill to design a statistically valid questionnaire and make sense of all the data you collect. It is very easy to generate misleading results.
WHAT QUESTIONS SHOULD YOU ASK?
You may decide to cover a range of topics in your research, but there are a few specific topics you should include in your questionnaire:
- What challenges are your clients facing today? And what worries them about the future?
- When they need business-related information, where do they turn? What do they read? What do they watch? What events do they attend?
- What do they look for in a service provider? How do they choose one over another?
IDENTIFY THE ISSUES YOU’LL OWN
Producing high-quality content is hard, and you can’t afford to waste your precious time. Instead, you need a strategy to help you decide what to write about. The first place you should look for guidance is your audience research. If you’ve done it right, it should point you toward issues and challenges that interest your target audiences.
We usually recommend that firms identify two to five big issues that they will write and speak about. The issues can’t be so broad that they lack a focus, but they can’t be so narrow that you will quickly run out of angles to explore, either. If some of your issues—or your take on them—are unconventional or controversial, so much the better. If possible, try to find subjects that aren’t already getting a lot of coverage so that your voice has a chance to be heard. And remember, your issues don’t have to be evergreen. For instance, you may decide to write for a few months on an emerging industry challenge. Once the challenge is resolved or fades from public view, you may decide to move on to other issues.
Here are a few sample issues:
For an architecture firm:
- New Trends in Higher Education Design
For a staffing firm:
- Attracting Top Executive Talent in a Contracting Job Market
For a management consulting firm:
- What Executives Can Learn from the Coronavirus
For an engineering firm:
- Engineering Against Catastrophe
These issues provide plenty of room for a firm to produce dozens of blog posts, articles, and webinars under each. At the same time, they are compact enough ideas that it would be easy for a person to associate them with a specific firm: “Oh, they are the experts in engineering buildings that can withstand hurricanes and earthquakes.”
DIVE INTO KEYWORD RESEARCH AND SEO
One of the central tenets of any digital content strategy is making your content findable in online search. To accomplish this, you need at least a basic knowledge of search engine optimization (SEO). (If you are interested, you can find an excellent SEO primer at Moz.) And you need to research a list of SEO keywords that relate to your expert issues (see previous section). You will use them to develop specific topics under each of your issues. In other words, you need to develop your content first for your target audiences, but you need to do this with Google firmly in mind. You will incorporate your keywords (or variations) into your blog post titles, for example, and use them in the body of your text. While keywords are only a small part of SEO, they are a critical component that directly influences what you write and talk about.
DECIDE HOW TO PACKAGE YOUR CONTENT
As I mentioned earlier, you can produce content in a wide range of formats. But which ones will be right for you? Content falls into two broad categories, and to attract new people and convert them into leads, you will need to address both of them:
- Flow Content: Short, frequently published content (such as blog posts) is used to attract regular, ongoing traffic to your website. It is open to everyone.
- Premium Content: More substantive, higher-value downloadable content (such as executive guides or research reports) is used to generate leads. This type of content is usually free but requires a form fill to access it.
Here is a list of some of the more popular content types. Note that some can fall into either content category, depending on their perceived value and how they are positioned.
- Blog Posts
- Executive Guides
- Research Reports
- White Papers
At the very least, you will need a blog and one piece of valuable content. That gives you a place to publish your flow content (blog posts) and a piece of premium content you can use to convert your most interested readers into leads (responding to an offer in your blog posts, readers fill out a form to download the content).
What you do with those leads depends on your strategy. Most firms will follow up with emails promoting other relevant content, encouraging the consumer to stay engaged and return again for more expert content.
DEVELOP A CONTENT CALENDAR
The most common reason content strategies fail is that people get distracted and never fully implement them. I won’t lie: a digital content strategy takes commitment. And one way to keep yourself honest and stay on track is to lay out a detailed calendar specifying what you will do on any given day. Planning this way allows you to set a rhythm, so you can get in the habit of developing content on certain days, carrying out promotion activities on others, et cetera.
A calendar also allows you to plan in advance what topics you are going to write or speak about. If you are blogging, for instance, you can plug the exact titles of your blog posts into your calendar—when the time comes to write, you are ready to go.
At Hinge, we use an Excel spreadsheet for our content calendar, but you could use a digital calendar (or even a paper one!) if that’s more convenient for you. Whatever tool you use, don’t skip this critical step. You can only hold yourself accountable if you have a detailed plan to measure your progress against.
PROMOTE YOUR CONTENT
Once you have produced a piece of content, it’s important to share it with the world. If you employ SEO, you can do this passively—waiting for Google to index your post and—eventually—deliver readers. But you are likely to have more success if you actively promote it, as well. Here are a few ways you can do that:
Email Marketing. Promote your latest post or piece of premium content to your email list. If you don’t have an email list, your digital content strategy will help you build one. Here’s an email marketing guide to get you started.
Social Media. LinkedIn and Twitter are ideal tools to share your latest content with your followers. You can also publish content on the LinkedIn platform to reach new audiences. Check out this LinkedIn guide for more information.
Guest publishing. Look for opportunities to write for outside publications and blogs. Not only can you expose your ideas to new audiences, but you may be able to link back to content on your blog or website. These so-called “backlinks” can give your content a powerful boost in Google.
MEASURE YOUR RESULTS
Every strategy should specify how you will measure success. Which metrics you track will depend on what goals and techniques you chose in your strategy. If you are seeking more leads, for instance, you’ll want to track qualified and unqualified leads. You may also track premium content downloads and contact form fills.
If you are trying to build visibility and reach, you might track organic web traffic over time, how many keywords you are ranking for, which keywords rank on the first page of Google, where new prospects are located, how many visitors you get to your blog and other visibility-related metrics.
Your team should review your metrics on a regular basis—weekly or monthly are common cadences. Don’t forget to monitor how closely your team has followed the content calendar. This kind of social pressure is often the best way to keep everyone motivated and on track.
If you notice any problems—a particular tactic isn’t generating acceptable results—don’t hesitate to try something else. That is the ultimate reason you measure your results, after all. No strategy should ever be set in stone.
What’s Your Next Move?
Buyers of professional services are moving quickly and inexorably toward a less personal but more convenient digital marketplace. For many firms, making this transition is difficult and painful—and an alarming number of firms have hardly begun.
But a digital content strategy can open up myriad new opportunities, too. Firms can use educational content to demonstrate their expertise and build a significant national or international following without ever leaving their hometown. In some cases, prospects will hire a firm based solely on the reputation they cultivated through their content. That’s true power!
If your firm hasn’t yet taken the digital content plunge, there is no better time than now. People are hungry for expertise like yours. And by giving away some of it for free, you can build a loyal following that will bear fruit for years to come.