17 October 2013

10 commandments of professional services digital marketing: acquiring new customers

Professional services firms are perhaps the most conservative marketers, primarily because they trust that customers will find them, if they just do good work. This applies to all industries, say, advertising, legal, consulting and ICT services. This is no longer enough. Increasing competition and disruptions looming in many sectors emphasise the need to find new customers and to use the best of digital marketing methods. Although digital marketing can also be used to recruit capable professionals, we shall not focus on that.

Professional services marketing

Professional services marketing activities are often divided into five categories:
  • Broadcasting: All activities that generate leads, enquiries and potential business opportunities with new customers.
  • Courting: Actions for a single, specific prospect; these activities are traditionally called selling and proposing - even though, especially in professional services, a client makes a decision to enter into a business relationship, not just a purchase.
  • Superpleasing: Serving existing customers on existing matters so well, that they want to continue to cooperate with the service provider.
  • Nurturing: Measures to win new assignments from existing clients through strengthening relationships.
  • Listening to the market: Market data collection and analysis, as well as better understanding of customers, so that a company is able to more effectively market its professional services.
Since broadcasting and courting target new customers, our main focus is on them. Existing customers affect new potential customers through their reference value and word-of-mouth, so superpleasing and nurturing cannot be forgotten. Both existing and new customers are sources of market insights, i.e. what customers want and how customer needs change. Digital marketing tools are also ideally suited for these activities.

Target customers and their buying process need to be well understood: who will influence purchasing decision, and how, what information they need in each phase of the partner selection and where are they typically looking for the information. In addition, it is vital to identify, what external parties are affecting services procurement and how they are affecting it.

When marketing to new customers, there are three basic principles:
  • More attention to selected prospects than to a long list of miscellaneous opportunities
  • Demonstration of competence is more effective than asserting
  • In person tactics are the most effective ones
Finally, customers are won, when there is an opportunity to discuss potential client's problems, so all marketing activities should be planned to give clients the necessary confidence to start these kind of discussions. Next we shall present ten online marketing cornerstones that help a professional services firm to create confidential relationships with its potential new customers.

Make your web site your identity

Own website is also for a professional services firm an important part of the identity, the heart and the face, which gives the company its virtual looks and drives its digital marketing operations.

A company website cannot be a digital company or product brochure, with full of arguments of provided services and excellent know-how. Instead of details of the service offering, it is better to have a look at the offering with customers´ eyes: what are the customer benefits of the services. The most important thing is that the website makes it possible to pass the first customer evaluation gates - the essential criteria are references, capabilities and resources. To build customer confidence, there should be a clear focus, when describing company expertise - there are very few companies that can claim to be an expert at everything.

Pictures, diagrams, videos and other multimedia elements should be used, if they clarify, what a company wants to say. Otherwise, cosmetic changes and improvements of a website or technology gimmicks are seldom very beneficial for achieving company's business objectives.

Become thought leader among your customers

Customers love companies that are able to provide new information, new perspectives and new ideas. Compelling content is the core of thought leadership. Attention, interest and desire to cooperate are won by demonstrating that a professional services company is useful and provides added value to its customers' business.

Company website is the centerpoint of becoming a thought leader. Published articles, research, short videos, webinars, etc. create confidence among site visitors by discussing important issues and concerns of potential new customers. If the company's service offering is personified as its key individual skills, the content must be strongly linked to such persons. However, if the expertise is more anchored to the company structures and practises, this should be communicated on the website, too.

Target customers' needs should drive the creation of content. The content is planned according to what information client decision-makers and external influencers need for each stage of the procurement process.

Share your insights

Many professional services firms have interesting content on their websites, but major stakeholders will never see it. To ensure that content marketing is effective and that it will generate new leads and business opportunities, a company needs to amplify its message. This is done by sharing generated content on sites that are important to customers and their thought leaders; to sites that are happy to take the content free of charge due to its reliability and significance, as well as to those that take a sponsoring fee to publish it. Sharing raises awareness of the additional information found on the company website, and significantly increases site traffic. An effective way to increase visibility is to send press releases through special agencies; for example, when new articles or research is published on company website.

Email distribution can be effective, if messages are not sent on a regular basis according to a schedule and if they can tell the audience something valuable. Often, this means that sent messages must be tailored to the needs of target segments.

Make influencers love you

Several studies suggest that traditional marketing communication has lost much of its power; buyers and decision-makers are looking by themselves for information on products and services - leaning on the Internet and influencers. Their reviews, reports and opinions are often significantly affecting on which companies will be considered in detail.

It is instrumental to identify influencers as well as information sources and communities that they favour, so that influencers can be turned company advocates. And when bloggers, journalists and other thought leaders favour company offerings, it has a bigger impact than company´s own communications.

When trying to influence the influencers, it is vital to provide them tools to increase their social capital: to grow their reputation and online reach. New and relevant information and constantly updated statistics that are important to customers, are good examples of such effective tools.

Extend your reach through social media

Finding new customers through personal contacts is a traditional but laborious way to market professional services. Social media changes this. Potential customers are already in e.g. LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook and social media is the best way to get to know them and to create an image as a credible and viable service provider. Access to virtual world contacts is also very cost-effective compared to real world ones. And even though there might not be any direct deals through social networks, they may initiate processes resulting in business relationships. For example, cold calls are much more effective, if before making any calls, there is already an established social network link.

Create hooks to catch your customers

Often there are industry practises that can be renewed or changed, thus making it easier to acquire new customers. A good example is to put such new information on company website that has previously been available only as paid services; customers will be able to apply this knowledge by themselves, and thus create a limited version of what other service providers are offering. Information provided can also consist of well-edited current news that is necessary for customers. The company that has made the information available will be well-known to potential customers and thereby strengthens its position, when negotiating future service contracts. Use of a downloadable application to create awareness among client companies is another example: the application provides selected customer decision-makers tools that they need in their work and gets them initially familiar with the service company´s offering.

Marry real world with virtual one

Digital world tools are most effective when used in combination and parallel with offline marketing. At best, their use is seamless ranging from broadcasting messaging to closing of a deal and strengthening of relationships.

The basic level is to link all offline marketing efforts to company webpages to attract potential customers to visit them. Various events, such as seminars and conferences, can also be successfully supported by web tools: besides being event promotion tools, it is possible e.g. to identify in advance the business challenges that the participating companies are facing. This is possible by listing the topics that have been interesting for a specific participant and by seeing what have been his areas of interest in social media. Another example relates to making presentations in industry conferences: copies of the presentation, as well as additional company information should be forwarded through the company website, in return for contact information.

Be patient with your customers

Most of the professional services purchases have been decided before making actual bids; the intent of a bid is just to seal the deal - or then not. Therefore, while a customer has been identified but the deal is not yet closed, it is important to systematically nurture potential customers to get them increasingly interested. Both traditional and digital marketing tools should be used together. Best nurturing methods have produced extremely good results compared to more conventional ones.

It is essential that company website content is targeted to the various stages of customer procurement process. By defining the typical steps how customers get familiar with website content and by comparing that with actual behaviour, it is possible to create a deeper understanding of customers´ purchase barriers. Based on what has been discovered, it is possible to make customers initial suggestions and proposals, with the goal to get customers agree on personal meetings to discuss in greater depth the clients´ business challenges.

Make yourself easy to find

All of the above digital marketing principles will also improve company's site ranking in relevant search results. Fresh and interesting content makes search engines visit company site on a regular basis. And when the site visitors share the content to their social contacts, it convinces search engines that the content is useful. The company must, of course, also take care of search engine optimisation activities.

The above described organic search results are the most highly respected ones among users, but if a company has enough money, also advertising on search result pages is possible. Since measurability of results is one of the absolute benefits of search advertising, you should test the results of such advertising prior to a possible large scale deployment.

Improve continuously

Digital world offers excellent opportunities for continuous improvement. Various testing methods, such as A/B testing, are the tools for this. The idea is to provide relevant audience two or more different versions of webpages, and based on results, determine which version is operationally most effective. It can be tested, for example, how to best respond to page visitors: provision of an article, suggestion to participate in a webinar  or connection to a specific expert. Although there would not be plenty of website traffic, you should, however, recognise the potential for test marketing and conduct tests that are the most important for success.

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