Written by: Lee Frederiksen, PH.D. and Aaron Taylor
High-growth professional services firms rely on inbound lead generation techniques more than any other kind. But many firms haven’t gotten the message and are still slow to adopt the digital and content marketing tactics that attract modern buyers. Even the almighty referral has been in steady decline for years. And the COVID pandemic has only accelerated the market’s transition to the digital arena.
Inbound lead generation’s potential is real, but it requires a radical shift in mindset, marketing priorities and financial investment. Sponsorships and in-person networking just aren’t going to cut it anymore. Instead, start thinking about an asset you already have—your team’s expertise—and how you can use that pool of knowledge to attract and engage an audience that wants what you have to offer.
Inbound Marketing Techniques Defined
Inbound marketing is the process of helping potential clients discover your firm by making your relevant expertise and insights easy to find. It allows prospects to encounter you, in the channels they prefer, when they are ready to learn and engage. Inbound marketing messages tend to be educational in nature rather than self-promotional.
By giving away some of your knowledge for free, you can quickly build a prospect’s trust. When they are ready to buy the kinds of services you offer, they are likely to think of you—their trusted resource—first.
Inbound marketing contrasts with outbound marketing, where you try to locate potential clients and interrupt them to gain their attention and deliver your marketing message. Outbound messages are typically more self-promotional and focused on your products or services and less focused on the client’s issues.
Advantages of Inbound Marketing
An inbound marketing strategy has many advantages over traditional marketing. Here are just a few:
- Prospects engage when they are ready, so you don’t have to convince them of a need
- Since they are self-selected, prospects tend to be more motivated
- Your content can explain your thinking and approach, so when prospects reach out, they are looking for exactly what you are offering
- Inbound leads are typically easier to close
- It’s often less costly than outbound marketing
- It expands your reach to new markets and prospects—including people you weren’t even aware of before and never would have found you otherwise
Top 21 Inbound Marketing Techniques
How do you put all the advantages of inbound marketing to work for your firm? Try incorporating some or all of the following top techniques into your marketing program.
1. SEARCH ENGINE OPTIMIZATION
Search engine optimization (often just called SEO) is the process of making your online content, such as blog posts and services pages, easy to find through search engines like Google. As much art as science, SEO can involve a wide range of tactics (such as keyword research, page optimization and link building) to achieve its ultimate goal: delivering a steady stream of high-quality traffic to your website.
How you might use it: No inbound marketing strategy can ignore SEO. If you publish educational blog content, use keyword research to make your blogging more strategic. Then use on-site and off-site techniques to build visibility for your content.
2. PAY-PER-CLICK ADVERTISING
Another way to drive qualified traffic to your website and generate inbound leads is to invest in pay-per-click advertising (PPC). Most commonly used on search platforms like Google and Bing, PPC allows you to appear on relevant search results pages for search terms of your choice. Unlike the traditional advertising model, you pay only when someone clicks on your ad. You have complete control over your target audiences, keywords and budget. Once you have your campaign set up, it works immediately. And you can track results in real time.
How you might use it: Many companies use PPC to supplement their SEO program. If you aren’t able to rank for certain critical keywords using SEO, you can target them with ads that look very much like organic search results. This technique is also very helpful when you need quick visibility, such as with a new product launch or rebranding exercise.
3. LEAD-GENERATING WEBSITE
Driving traffic to your website and blog isn’t enough. You still need to convert that valuable traffic into leads. Unfortunately, most professional services websites aren’t set up to do this very well. A lead-generating website, on the other hand, makes it easy for a visitor to understand what you do, read, watch or download educational materials, and reach out if they have a need. This kind of website is not just about CTAs and conversions (though those are important). It is designed to be easy to read, ooze credibility and build trust.
How you might use it: We won’t beat around the bush: it’s almost impossible to have an effective inbound marketing strategy without a lead-generating website. If you aren’t ready to invest in a soup-to-nuts redesign, you can try retrofitting your current site with some of the features of a high-performance website. But eventually, you will probably want to rebuild it from scratch to deliver a powerful, cohesive experience.
4. ONLINE NETWORKING
There is still a place for in-person networking, but in most industries the spotlight has moved into the digital realm. From Facebook to Twitter to LinkedIn, there are well-established platforms where you can meet—and influence—hundreds or even thousands of potential clients. Like its analog counterpart, online networking centers on making connections with the right people, building a reputation and generating referrals, but it is far easier to scale and reach a large group of interested individuals. It has the added benefit of breaking down geographic barriers and exposing you to audiences in distant markets.
How you might use it: Online networking is not magic. To achieve results it requires some dedication and a consistent approach. If you are new to it, or have only dabbled in the past, select just one platform and be realistic about the level of effort you can sustain. In almost every professional services industry, LinkedIn is your best bet. Try to add a few qualified new connections each week or two. Engage with other people’s content, and publish pieces of your own. When it makes sense, reach out to individual people in your pool of connections to further the relationship.
Webinars offer almost all of the benefits of an in-person educational event, while adding a host of new advantages. Like an in-person seminar or educational training session, you can demonstrate your expertise, answer questions, and build a rapport with your audience. You can also collect attendees’ contact information so that you can follow up with relevant offers. But unlike in-person events, you can invite people from anywhere in the world, easily conduct live polls, include presenters from multiple locations, and record your presentation to engage people who weren’t able to attend. On top of all that, webinars are easy and cheap to produce.
How you might use them: Consider teaming up with a partner in a related industry that also serves your audience. They will bring their own audience to the presentation, expanding your reach. Or try presenting with a client who can bring a point of view that will resonate with your attendees. End each presentation with a call to action that gets people to take another step. This could be a downloadable piece of content or a free consultation. Experiment and see what works for you.
6. RESEARCH STUDIES
A research study on your target client’s industry is one of the most powerful tools a firm can use to build credibility and position itself as a thought leader. Besides the valuable insights they gain, firms that use research as a marketing tool are seen as more knowledgeable and trusted for their expertise. Research studies also make exceptional lead generators.
How you might use it: You can conduct your own original research, usually with the help of an experienced research partner. Or if that’s too rich for your budget, you can sponsor a study being conducted by a third-party. An even less expensive option is to license existing research. Whatever type of research you invest in, you can use it in many ways. You can provide reports for free download behind a contact form or, if you did custom research, you can offer it for sale. But that’s just the beginning. All that data can be used to inspire blog posts, webinars, speeches, social media posts, infographics and more. One study should provide months of material for your marketing program.
7. ONLINE MARKETING VIDEOS
There is no more perfect inbound marketing medium for professional services firms than video. It allows your audience to see and hear your experts in a fully controlled environment. In this way, potential clients get a taste of what it might be like to work with your firm before they buy. That’s powerful.
How you might use it: Video can be used to deliver educational content, explain complex services or introduce a firm’s team of experts. High-value video content, such as how-tos, webinar recordings and short courses, can also be put behind a registration form to build your list and generate leads. You can even enlist clients to describe how your firm solved a thorny problem or contributed to their success. By the way, you don’t have to spend a fortune on video. Today, you have many options to choose from.
8. WHITE PAPERS
White papers have been around for decades—and for good reason. Even today, they can be fantastic lead generation tools. People look to white papers for a serious exploration of a technical or practical topic in a compact format. And many people who need to understand an issue at that level of depth will gladly trade a small amount of personal information to access it.
How you might use them: Promote white papers on your website, such as your homepage, applicable services pages and relevant blog posts. If you want to use them as an inbound lead generation tool, create a landing page with a short form to turn readers into new contacts for your email list. Another option is to distribute your white paper through a third-party service, expanding your visibility. The focus should be on educating your audience, not self-promotion. You are trying to build credibility and trust, not close the sale today.
Guides are similar to white papers, but they differ in two respects: 1) they tend to cover a broader topic in depth, often consisting of multiple chapters; and 2) they are usually less technical, speaking in plain English to an executive-level audience. A guide explores a topic in enough detail to give a senior-level influencer or decision-maker a high-level understanding. At the same time, they signal to the reader that your firm knows its stuff and would be well qualified to solve their problem.
How you might use them: Use guides to target executives similar to how you would white papers. White papers tend to have a more technical slant. Guides also make excellent lead nurturing content in email campaigns.
Like guides, ebooks explore an issue in depth, but they dive even deeper. While there is no minimum length for an ebook, most contain multiple chapters and run at least 50 pages. Many are full-length books running well over 100 pages. Works of this length have a great deal of perceived value, and people will gladly exchange personal information for a free digital copy. To increase the value of the free copy even more, you can use a print-on-demand publisher (such as Amazon KDP or Ingram Lightning Source) to produce physical copies that you sell on Amazon or at other stores.
How you might use them: Promote your ebook in conventional on-page offers or in pop up offers. You can also market your ebook on your website like you would a traditionally published book, positioning your firm as thought leaders.
E-newsletters may sound like a quaint relic from a simpler time, but you don’t have to look very far to realize they are still going strong. Chances are, you subscribe to one or two or more, yourself. That’s because they work. The difference is, today you have a lot more platforms to launch yours. While many people use traditional email platforms, like MailChimp and Constant Contact, to deliver their e-newsletters, others have moved to integrated platforms such as Hubspot and Salesforce Pardot. Still others manage them on popular social media platforms like LinkedIn. Why are e-newsletters so effective? For one thing, they provide a dependable outlet for your thought leadership. And by their very nature, they keep you top of mind as new issues arrive on a regular schedule.
How you might use them: E-newsletters should not be a vehicle for company news, new employee announcements and teambuilding pics. Only the most doting client will care about any of that. To be a truly valuable inbound lead generation technique, each issue should focus on a topic your clients and prospects care about. Usually this means educational content. Promote your newsletter on your website and social media. To minimize friction and encourage the most people to subscribe, require as little information as possible at signup. Many e-newsletters require nothing more than an email address.
By itself, blogging isn’t really a lead generation technique. But as part of a larger system that includes SEO and gated valuable content, it is the most powerful driver of leads to your website. That’s because people who find your blog posts through Google are likely to be interested in other content on your website—especially if you promote a relevant free guide or whitepaper download alongside your post. That’s how you turn web visitors into leads. And if you get your SEO and blog strategy right, you’ll attract a lot of qualified prospects—people who are highly motivated and interested in your services.
How you might use it: Be sure to host your blog on your website, or you will waste all the Domain Authority “juice” it generates. Promote your posts on LinkedIn and Twitter to maximize your exposure.
13. GUEST BLOGGING
Your blogging activity doesn’t have to be restricted to your own blog—nor should it be. A great way to amplify your blogging strategy is to guest blog on respected, high-authority third-party sites. This strategy exposes you to new audiences and, if the blog allows it, can supply valuable backlinks to your website. It also helps position you as thought leaders in your industry.
How you might use it: Look for blogs that speak to your target audience. These could be standalone blogs, online business publications, industry organizations or businesses at the periphery of your industry (for example, attorneys and CPAs often serve the same clientele but don’t directly compete with each other). When you contribute to high Domain Authority blogs, you can often target keywords that you would otherwise have little hope of ranking for.
Podcasts are more popular than ever, and this medium is only expected to grow. Fortunately, the cost of entry to podcasting is low—you can buy a quality microphone for less than $130 and several popular audio software apps are available for free (such as Audacity or Apple’s Garage Band). You’ll also need a podcast hosting service (many excellent low-cost options are available—we use Libsyn). A podcast is an excellent vehicle to showcase your firm’s expertise, build trust and connect, in a personal way, with your audience. If you distribute your episode to even one or two of the popular directories (such as Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or TuneIn), you have the potential to reach hundreds or thousands of new listeners—many of whom may never have heard of you before.
How you might use it: Use your podcast to explore current issues and trends that are important to your audience, discuss how you solve specific problems, interview other experts, or even invite clients to share their challenges.
15. VISIBLE EXPERTS®
Your firm is filled to the brim with experts. What if you could make some of them far more well known, even outside your marketplace? What effect would that have on your firm’s growth? At Hinge, we call these upwardly mobile individuals Visible Experts®. They not only bring more visibility to your firm, they can often command higher fees. But that’s not all. Visible Experts also help your firm attract better, more profitable clients, close business faster and attract top talent. In short, they can elevate your firm to a new level of prominence. But how do you build your experts’ reputations? They can either follow a self-guided process or hire an outside consultant to mentor them and step them through the process.
How you might use it: If your firm is small, elevating even a single professional to Visible Expert status can make a huge difference. Larger firms may want to put a team of professionals through a formal program to multiply the impact.
16. POP-UP OFFERS ON YOUR WEBSITE
Pop up offers aren’t just for B2C websites. They can be a powerful lead generation tool for professional services firms, too. Use them to convert your website and blog visitors into leads. If you use a flexible dedicated tool, such as OptinMonster, you can easily set up different offers that align with the content on your pages.
How you might use them: Experiment with a variety of offers (many of these tools even allow you to conduct A/B tests) such as white papers, guides, e-newsletter subscriptions, webinar recordings, live demos and free consultations. Just be sure that each offer is relevant to the content on the page, includes clear, enticing benefits and requires the person to fill out a form to access the material.
17. DEDICATED LANDING PAGES
An offer should always lead to a place where it’s fast and easy to complete the conversion. In most cases, this means a dedicated page with language that quickly orients the user, continues to “sell” the product and minimizes the roadblocks to completing the download or other action.
How you might use them: Writing and optimizing landing pages is always as straightforward as you think. You may need to test different copy and visuals to optimize conversions. You can set up Google Analytics (or a CRM like Salesforce/Pardot or HubSpot) to see not only how many people reach the landing page, but how many actually follow through with the download. Some tools will even allow you to A/B test different landing page versions concurrently.
18. LIVE CHAT
Prospective clients are on your website every day. A live chat app gives them a way to interact with your team in real time (at Hinge, we use Olark, but many good options are available). Unlike chatbots, which rely on AI or preprogrammed responses, live chat allows web visitors to have conversations with designated employees. In marketing, responsiveness can be critical to a firm’s success. This low-friction tool allows people to ask questions and get answers right away, dramatically improving lead generation.
How you might use it: In most cases, installing a Live Chat app is as simple as adding a plugin to your website. If you have a CRM, you may be able to integrate it with that, as well. To start, assign one or two people on your staff to monitor the chat app. Select people who are both familiar with your services and have business development skills. You’ll be surprised how often simple inquiries turn into serious opportunities.
19. ONLINE COURSE
Today, more and more professionals are looking online for high-quality training and education. That makes producing an online course of your own an attractive inbound lead generation technique. Whether you hire a professional videographer or do it all in-house, producing an in-depth course on a topic of interest to your buyers can be a great way to widen your market exposure and show off your expertise. Now, producing a high-quality course takes a lot of planning, time and effort. You will need to navigate a large number of factors, including video, audio, slides and other visual aids, video hosting, quizzes (if you want them), worksheets or other supplemental materials, and the platform you will use to deliver your course to your online audience. But there are few better ways to show people how you think and solve problems. It’s not unusual for buyers of online courses to later become buyers of your services.
How you might use it: You can either give the course away as a powerful lead magnet and marketing tool, or you can sell it online as a self-serve product. Use the size and scope of your course as a guide in making this decision. An 8-hour video course with quizzes and supplemental materials is a huge investment—and probably worth charging for. A 2-hour webinar-style training, on the other hand, is a perfect piece of valuable content to give away for the price of a name and email address. Whatever topic you choose to cover, make sure it is of real interest to your target audience and dovetails with a service you offer.
20. EMAIL NURTURE SEQUENCES
While not technically a lead generation technique, an email nurture sequence makes your lead generation program far more effective. When you acquire a new email contact through any of the techniques described above, you can use a pre-programmed sequence of emails to send out highly relevant educational content over a period of days or weeks, as well as provide opportunities for the prospect to take a next step in the relationship. If you are a firm of any size, chances are you’ll need multiple email sequences to address different interests, service lines and audience segments. The benefits? You stay top of mind, keep your contacts engaged for a prolonged period of time and continue to provide the trust-building thought leadership that turns a casual interest in your firm into raging fandom.
How you might use them: You’ll need a tool designed to handle sequenced emails. Do you have a marketing automation platform such as Hubspot, Marketo or Pardot? Then you already have what you need. If not, look for a cloud-based tool specifically designed to deliver nurture sequences (ConvertKit is a popular option). If you have a library of educational content, look for pieces that would address a common issue or set of related issues. If you don’t have a library of content, create new content (it doesn’t have to be lengthy) or repurpose existing materials, such as blog posts, speeches and webinar recordings.
21. DIGITAL PR
Digital Public Relations is a collection of techniques used to broaden your firm’s exposure, promote your thought leadership and strengthen your website’s Domain Authority. It can include many tactics, including publishing articles and press releases, engaging with reporters and providing expert answers to their questions, researching and addressing trending topics, building relationships with bloggers, podcasters and other influencers, developing greater social media presence, and more. Not long ago, Google’s Search Advocate John Mueller said that digital PR is even more important than technical SEO to your website. So ignore it at your own risk.
How you might use it: Digital PR can seem overwhelming at first. Start with one or two techniques and build from there. Don’t worry about churning out press releases—they’ll have little or no impact without a solid strategy behind them. Instead, try reaching out to a few influencers and see if they might be willing to publish a guest blog post or host one of your experts on their podcast. Perhaps you can arrange a joint webinar with a strategic partner. Small incremental steps can produce outsize results.
These 21 inbound lead generation techniques would make a formidable marketing plan by themselves. But if you have limited resources, you can still make great strides toward developing more quality inbound leads by picking a few to focus on. They don’t have to replace any traditional techniques that are working well for you today. In fact, high-growth firms almost always use a combination of digital inbound and traditional marketing tactics to reach a wider range of people. By accelerating your transition toward an inbound-forward marketing strategy, you will be better aligned with today’s buyers—and become an active participant in the way they find, learn to trust, vet and select their professional services partners.