Written by: Austin McNair:
There’s a scene in the 2014 sci-fi adventure film Interstellar that stuns me to this day.
As Earth perishes from drought and famine, the protagonist played by Matthew McConaughey embarks on a time-sensitive journey across the universe in search of a new home for humanity. Midway through the movie, McConaughey and the team of scientists arrive at their first planet to explore, one situated in close proximity to a black hole. Because of this proximity, the planet has 130% of earth’s gravity and also experiences an extreme time dilation, making it so that one hour on the planet equals 7 years on Earth! The stakes are high and every second matters. Without summarizing the whole movie, I’ll limit my plot synopsis to mention that things do not go to plan for the team that visits the planet. Too much time passes.
The scene that stuns me is actually the one that follows this thrilling sequence on the planet. When McConaughey and team return to their spacecraft, he is greeted by the one team member who stayed behind to study the planet from above. He is now an old man. 23 years have passed. The emotion of this scene is remarkable, not only because of the intense action, but because the movie awakens us to the realities of the powerful forces at work in the universe—time, space, and gravity.
The mysterious force of gravity is the most vivid analogy I can use to describe the power of a successful inbound content marketing plan. Similar to how larger bodies of mass in space have increased potential pulling power of gravity, at Hinge we’ve used an inbound content marketing program for years—and have witnessed first hand the way it can pull buyers towards a firm’s brand.
In this article, we will enter the gravity well of inbound content marketing. We’ll explore why and how inbound content marketing is one of the most powerful ways professional services firms can enhance their visibility and reputations today. We’ll define inbound content marketing, discuss its benefits and challenges, and provide you with a roadmap to implementing your own inbound content marketing program.
By the end of this article, you will have a better understanding of how inbound content marketing works and how you can begin harnessing this powerful force at your firm.
So journey with me! Let’s begin by providing a definition of the term inbound content marketing.
What is Inbound Content Marketing?
Inbound content marketing is a marketing strategy that involves creating and sharing valuable and relevant content with a target audience for the purpose of educating them on your individual/corporate expertise and capabilities.
This is in contrast to outbound marketing activities, which involve more traditional forms of advertising such as television commercials, print ads, direct mail, and even paid social media ads.
Examples of Inbound Content Marketing
Examples of inbound content marketing can include a combination of many different marketing techniques, including the writing of blog posts, production of videos, publication of whitepapers, and more. An inbound content marketing program can range in size depending on the amount of bandwidth a particular team has for implementing the strategy. Regardless of its scope, every inbound content marketing strategy has the same goal—to provide your target audience with accessible content that helps them solve their business problems while simultaneously demonstrating your expertise.
Let’s review a real-world example… this blog post! I am writing this blog post with the intention of ranking for the keyword “inbound content marketing.” This article is completely free for anyone to read and my intent is to educate you on everything I know about inbound content marketing. I also intend to demonstrate my expertise on the subject through my experience delivering content marketing programs at Hinge.
But is inbound content marketing still relevant to today’s buyers? Let’s take a look.
The Case for Inbound Content Marketing
We can’t pretend that content marketing is anything new, so why should professional services marketers care about it today? Is it an outdated approach?
When trying to solve big “why” questions like this, we at Hinge like to turn to the data. Does data on professional services buyers support investing in an inbound content marketing program? The answer is a resounding YES! And for more than one reason.
Inbound content marketing cultivates potential customers in three ways:
- Finding you
- Evaluating you
- Closing the sale
Let’s take a look at recent data on professional services buyer behavior and see how strategic inbound content marketing enhances the power of your brand.
Inbound Content Marketing Helps Prospects Find You
It’s not a surprise that over the last decade buyer behavior is gradually shifting to the digital environment. One of the consequences of this is that the ways potential buyers find you is expanding into a more diverse set of channels. In the chart below, we see the list of the top ways buyers search for solutions to their work-related problems.
Professional services marketing has always relied on a strong backbone of networking and referrals from peers and colleagues. But today we find that other channels are increasingly important too!
Let’s focus on the second channel: buyers are turning to search engines like Google for answers. Nearly tied with the perennial top channel, referrals, search engines play an essential role in the business development environment today. So the question to ask is “when your buyers turn to search for problems, will your firm appear in the results?”
For most professional services firms, ranking in search engines is a real pain point. Search engine optimization (SEO) is a technical marketing skill that requires ongoing dedication to build traction. And it is here where we find one of the primary use cases of inbound content marketing. High-quality content that is relevant and practical has the best chance of ranking on Google. And of course, higher rankings on search engines means people interested in your expertise are more likely to discover you.
The visibility rewards compound overtime too. As marketing teams produce more and more content on their websites, their ability to rank for more competitive keywords gets stronger. Organic SEO benefits are possible too as people share your content or add backlinks to your content on their websites.
Looking back at our Interstellar gravity metaphor, the more content you publish to your website, the more mass you’re adding to your digital planet. If it’s the right substance, then you’ll start pulling in the right audience to engage with your firm’s brand.
As I mentioned above, buyers are using many channels to search for work-related problems today. So while we highlighted SEO, let’s also look at how other content-based techniques help professional services firms increase their visibility.
The research shows that buyers are turning to channels where they can listen to an expert speak on a topic (e.g., podcasts), read blog articles, and consume premium content in the forms of guides, ebooks, webinars, and/or videos. All of these channels can be part of an integrated inbound content marketing program.
While outbound strategies might be the fastest way to getting new eyeballs on your brand, marketers have known that organic visibility is always preferable. It is a slower approach. But buyers searching for solutions and finding your original thought leadership content is an excellent way to be found and begin a relationship.
Content Marketing Helps Prospects Evaluate You
The benefits of inbound content marketing aren’t limited to being found. Our research shows that content marketing also plays a key role when your business is being evaluated as a possible service provider. The chart below shows what buyers care about most when evaluating you as a service provider. Can you find the connection with inbound content marketing?
When comparing two or more firms, buyers are looking most often for industry knowledge and subject matter expertise. In the high-stakes environment of evaluating firms, what brings buyers comfort is knowing that a service provider has a rich understanding of their industry and that they have the expertise to solve their particular problems.
High-quality thought leadership content, written by competent experts at your firm, fills this gap. Potential buyers want to understand your firm’s unique perspective. What separates you from the competition? You can educate them and validate your expertise with accessible, relevant content.
It’s important to take into consideration that buyers will continue to consult your firm’s website and engage with your brand throughout the evaluation process. They will pass your information and website URL to their colleagues. They may subscribe to your email list and receive promotions you send out to your list. During this evaluation period, continuing to validate your firm’s expertise is key.
Content that engages prospects directly like webinars can be particularly potent pieces of your inbound content marketing system for these individuals considering your firm as a service provider. Oftentimes this is the weakest part of a content marketing strategy. But investment into content marketing techniques that help to nurture relationships is essential.
Content Marketing Helps Close the Sale
We understand that at the end of the day deals need to close. And while many may consider the objective of closing the sale to be left to partners and business development representatives, data shows us that your inbound content marketing techniques can benefit here too.
In our study, we asked professional services buyers what “tipped the scale” for them when they made their final selection decision. Here are the top five deciding factors:
- Existing relationship
- Relevant experience/past performance
- Talented staff/team skills
- Knowledge of industry/subject matter expertise
- Client service (flexibility/responsiveness/timeliness)
Once again the data points us at three things that intersect with a strong inbound content marketing program.
We see that buyers want proof of experience and past performance. Case stories and project overviews are great examples of content that can address this need. For example, in Hinge’s monthly webinars, we try to include client stories and results as a core part of the content.
Number three on the list is your talented team and the skills your team possesses. A strong content marketing program is an effective way to demonstrate your team’s expertise on particular issues. When your experts are also contributors to your content marketing program, buyers get a small sample of what it might be like to work with your team. The content has validated the team members and their expertise in a public way that can give buyers an opportunity to familiarize themselves with your team before even working with you.
Then on the list we see number four appear again—knowledge of industry and subject matter expertise. The inbound content marketing techniques you implement provide prospective buyers with confidence and validation when making a buying decision.
So from the top of your marketing funnel, where you attract new prospects, all the way down to the bottom, where you close the sale, an inbound content marketing program can play an important role for professional services marketers.
The question is no longer why should you do inbound content marketing, but why don’t you? In the animation below, you can see my reaction anytime a marketing team begins to give up on their inbound content marketing program.
The Main Problem with Inbound Content Marketing
One thing is true about inbound content marketing that hasn’t been mentioned yet… it’s challenging. There’s no getting around the fact that building a high-quality inbound content marketing system comes with a cost. Time, effort, and lots of testing are required to maintain a growing inbound content marketing program. But one challenge with inbound content marketing stands above the rest.
The most common thing we hear when we work with our clients on their content marketing program is how hard it is to engage their experts in the content creation process. In the world of professional services, our top experts are the people most qualified to contribute powerful thought leadership content… But they are busy delivering work for their clients and selling more work. So how do we get them to participate in our content marketing program?
Organizing Your Team of Experts
Of course there is no one answer to the problem of engaging your firm’s thought leaders. Every expert is different. Some have ambitions to raise their professional profile while others are unconvinced that their thought leadership will benefit the firm. However, there are two primary strategies professional services marketers can implement to engage their experts in the content creation process.
First, you need to make sure that the experts understand why thought leadership content benefits both them and the firm. For starters, you can reiterate some of the data and points from earlier in this article. Educate them on your potential buyers and the role that high-quality content plays in the buyer journey of your prospects.
If that’s not enough to convince them, then educate them on some of the other benefits that come with being more visible with their expertise. Below in Figure 4 we see data from another research project we did on highly visible professional services experts. We asked them what benefits they enjoy the most from being thought leaders.
The second strategy for engaging experts in the content creation process is to make it easy for them. From experience let me tell you… it’s never good to simply send an email to a colleague and ask them to write a 1,000 word blog post. Unless you are working with a true content creation fanatic, you will likely not get a positive response. Instead, you need to demonstrate to the expert that you can help them make the process smooth.
If the assignment is to writing an article, then a top way to ease the burden on your expert is to engage an outside industry writer to take on the heavy lifting. Schedule an interview with the writer and the experts. To prepare for the interview, draft an outline of the piece. Schedule an interview between the expert and the writer, record it, and ask the expert to talk about each section of the outline. Allow the writer an opportunity to ask questions. In this scenario, the writer tackles the labor of writing and allows the expert to function more as a contributor and editor.
This concept of making things easier on your expert extends across all kinds of content. You want to work to the strengths of your experts. If they are strong speakers and presenters then lean into content creation that gives them the opportunity to use that gift. Record video interviews for social media clips, bring them on as webinar guests, or support their efforts to secure more speaking engagements.
Demonstrating to experts that you are taking their strengths into consideration will go a long way into making the content creation process better for your team. Here is how an expert will react when you make the content creation process easy for them.
Tears of joy.
Quality content creation will never come without its challenges. But with creative thinking and an expert-centered approach, you’ll be able to prevail.
Implementing an Inbound Content Marketing Plan
At this point you may be inspired to continue to develop your firm’s inbound content marketing program. As we have mentioned above, the benefits are plenty and the challenges can be conquered. So what are the steps you have to take in order to implement a successful inbound content marketing plan?
While we go into deeper detail in our article on brand development, let’s summarize the key factors that can make or break your inbound content marketing program. And let’s do so by asking some important questions. If you can answer these questions, then you’ll be well on your way to creating a robust inbound content marketing plan.
1. HAVE YOU IDENTIFIED YOUR TARGET CLIENTS?
No one can be all things to all people in marketing. Years of experience and research on professional services marketing have revealed to us that firms that grow faster and are more profitable often have a narrow focus. They solve specific problems for a particular group of target clients. As a marketer focusing on building a strategy, having a clear understanding of your target clients is non negotiable.
2. HAVE YOU RESEARCHED YOUR CLIENTS RECENTLY?
The fastest growing firms are also companies that are more likely to have researched their clients recently and more often. Understanding your target clients and the problems they face is an important aspect of running your business and also developing an inbound content marketing strategy.
The marketplace is changing faster than ever right now. But still many firms insist on carrying on without conducting ANY forms of research on their clients or marketplace. We believe this is a mistake.
Client research yields insights that translate directly to your marketing strategy. Understanding, for example, how your current clients found you can help you decide which marketing techniques to double-down on and which to kill.
3. IS YOUR BRAND POSITIONING DIFFERENTIATED FROM YOUR COMPETITION?
This is another question that is hard to answer without research. One thing we find through our Visible Firm program with our clients is that their competitive landscape is much larger than they think it is. Professional services firms consistently underestimate the number of competitors lurking in their ecosystem.
Therefore, it is crucial that your brand positioning is differentiated. This differentiation will be reflected on your website and in all your messaging and brand assets. Your team should be equipped with brand guidelines and key messages that keep them aligned on what makes your firm unique.
Strong brand positioning will also guide your marketing efforts when it comes to selecting issues and topics to write about. This differentiated, research-based approach is much better than creating content in a vacuum.
4. WHAT ARE YOUR FIRM’S MARKETING STRENGTHS?
Once you’re able to answer the three questions above with confidence, then you can consider which marketing techniques inbound content marketing techniques to use. Here you’ll want to turn your attention inward and assess your team’s strengths and weaknesses.
When evaluating your team’s skill set, think about marketing techniques in three categories: writing, speaking, and networking. While networking may not have a lot to do with inbound content marketing, speaking and writing certainly do. Selecting marketing techniques that align with the strengths of your team is the goal. And if possible, develop a visibility plan for each of your experts so they have a clear path forward.
For example, you may want to consider guiding your most skilled writers towards the creation of more technical, in-depth content. This could come in the form of a white-paper, research report, or guide. Your gifted speakers, on the other hand, may be more suited for strategies that lean into social media content. Platforms like LinkedIn continue to give additional exposure to original video content.
5. IS YOUR MARKETING INFRASTRUCTURE WORKING FOR YOU?
You can create excellent content and still miss the mark if your primary brand assets and infrastructure are outdated, broken, or completely missing. Inbound content marketing programs extend beyond the pieces of content themselves. They rely on many pieces of infrastructure which support them and extend their impact.
At a minimum, your firms should have these key pieces of marketing infrastructure to support a robust inbound content marketing program:
The most common shortfall for professional services firms is their website. In a recent article, I listed 21 traits of poorly designed websites that you can use to assess your own website. When it comes to your content marketing program, your website is the primary hub. If you invest time in creating a piece of unique content, it should have an easy-to-find place on your website so that your prospects and clients can access it.
Your marketing infrastructure and brand assets need to work in harmony with your content marketing strategy. Avoid any disconnects that would make content inaccessible to your target clients.
6. ARE YOU CONTINUING TO UPDATE YOUR CONTENT?
A piece of content is never finished. This is another common mistake we see when we work with our clients and research the competitive landscape. Content you create is always available to be reviewed, updated, and republished at a new time and date. Moreover, longer pieces of content can be broken down into smaller pieces and reused elsewhere—social media, webinars, even videos!.
Let’s consider a blog post as an example. If you posted an 800 word blog post one year ago but it is yet to get any SEO traction, perhaps this is an opportunity to try again. Leaving the article there with no updates is not going to make it magically improve. So revisit the post. What was the original intent? Is the post keyword-driven? Is there more that could be added to the article? In our experience, the answers here are almost always yes.
7. HOW ARE YOU CHALLENGING YOUR TEAM?
Finally, when an inbound content marketing program is running well, consider how your team might tackle bigger challenges that enhance your reputation. Should your firm start a podcast? How about a series of webinars? Or maybe you could consider commissioning original research on your industry that could be turned into a number of different pieces of content (see below).
Your inbound content marketing program will never arrive at its destination. There are always more ways to increase your firm’s visibility and enhance its reputation. As a marketing leader, be sure to continue to challenge your team to accomplish all it can building a strong content marketing program.
A Final Thought
We’ve made the case and shared why you should leverage the gravitational force of an inbound content marketing program. The benefits are innumerable. The challenges exist but can be overcome.
Inbound content marketing reaches your prospective buyers in a way that most outbound techniques cannot. By the nature of how these marketing efforts are designed, when buyers find you organically because of your subject matter expertise, they are more likely to trust you as a service provider.
Of course, we know the journey is not simple. And you may want some support. If you’d like to speak with a Hinge expert on how to develop your firm’s inbound marketing program, then reach out to us. We’d love to hear from you.