Most professional service firms acquire new clients the old fashioned way – through referrals from clients, partners and strategic alliances. It’s also quite popular to use public speaking, conferences and events. Some people join associations and then network. Still others use cold-calling or lukewarm calling campaigns to set meetings.

These are the tried and true practices that professional service firms have used for decades. The reason they are popular is because they work. But then along came digital and that changed everything. Suddenly the game became much more complex. With that complexity came uncertainty.

The danger of digital is that it might de-focus your efforts away from those things that work and instead cause you to invest in those things that don’t work. The other danger is that digital strategies might work, but they could require a much larger investment than you expect and could take a long time to bear fruit.

This leads me to my primary question. I don’t believe the right question to ask is – do we invest in digital? I think the right question is – how do we invest in digital and why?

Key Take-Away:

One of the reasons that most service firms struggle with digital is because they do not clearly define a set of realistic and achievable goals. This is the starting point.

Definition of digital

I want to make sure I’m clear about the term digital so we’re all on the same page. I think of digital marketing as essentially the counterpoint to analog marketing. Whereas analog marketing is human driven, digital marketing is technology-driven.

There exists an almost endless list of tactics that can be included in a digital campaign strategy. But generally those tactics fall into three larger groups:

  • Email marketing
  • Content marketing 
  • Social media

Email marketing includes newsletters, announcements and offers to register for content. Companies also use email to notify people of upcoming events. While email marketing is typically easy to deploy because of great new tools, spam filtering and low open rates have decreased its effectiveness over the last couple of years.

Content marketing is a very broad topic and can include all sorts of content types such as blog-sites, webinars, case studies, slideshares, e-books, videos, testimonials, documonials and action guides. Each of these tactics could be an entire marketing campaign unto themselves. Content is further divided into two types: gated (behind a registration form) and ungated (no form).

Social media is also a very broad area. There are several social media platforms, but the two most popular for service firms seem to be LinkedIn and Facebook. Of these, we have only seen service firms succeed on LinkedIn. Inside LinkedIn, a service professional could spend days building and executing the right strategy for updating your profile, joining groups, using InMails, building advanced searches, posting content and connecting with people.


The problems with digital

From my perspective, there are three primary problems with digital. One, because there are so many tactics you could deploy, it’s difficult to know which ones will work for you. Two, because digital is still relatively new, especially for service professionals, it’s difficult to know the best way to execute on the strategies.

Three, it’s difficult to find resources to do everything that needs to be done. Most organizations struggle mightily with this third issue for two reasons:

  • With so many tactics in play for digital, it can take an army the execute everything and most marketing departments are not an army. They’re usually very small teams or just one person.
  • With content being at the heart of the digital strategy, it’s difficult to get the mind share of thought leaders who are typically also the most billable people for a service firm?

Do these issues sound familiar? If they do, I have some suggestions for you.


First step - define your goals and how you’ll measure

A major reason that service firms struggle with digital is because they do not clearly define a set of realistic and achievable goals and have tools to measure meaningful progress. This is the starting point. I generally see service firms struggling with two issues in this area.

First, there are mismatched goals. Here is what I mean. If I ask a sales or business development person what they want from a digital campaign, their answer is nearly always – great new leads. But if I ask a marketing leader the same question (without the business development person in the room), I generally hear a much longer list of goals like – raise awareness, develop web traffic, get downloads, see more email opens, increase registrations and other answers.

There is nothing wrong with having two sets of goals. But you want to make sure they are clearly articulated and understood so you can build your strategy around them.

Second, many service firms make the mistake of hiring either a full-time or contract person to handle their digital strategy and this person is expected to execute right away. Usually this means they will do what is easiest and most visible to show their progress: usually deploying a blog-site. But this emphasis on fast execution creates all sorts of problems down the road.

The biggest problem is usually an absence of the right tools to measure and a definition of the metrics that matter to the business. So you’ll want to choose the tools that will allow you to measure the outcomes that matter to your organization. As a marketing executive, I know the value of reporting on data points that show success.


Some key next steps

Once you’ve set goals and put metrics in place, I have some suggestions about how to move forward quickly.

First, I recommend that you think of your digital strategy just the way you think of your analog strategy – as a sales funnel. The goal for all of our clients is to move people through the digital sales funnel as quickly as possible. So if you haven’t yet mapped the stages of your analog funnel, I recommend that you do so now. Then ask yourself how the digital sales funnel compares and what you want to see from each stage of the funnel.

Second, I recommend that you closely analyze the percentage of new clients today who are coming in primarily through digital channels versus analog. You can then set goals for how you want to change this in the future. Again it’s important to be specific here.

Third, you can identify a couple of analog tactics that are content oriented that you might digitize right away and place behind a registration form. Since public speaking and conferences are popular for service firms, I would imagine the content already exists in your organization. If you can find a real winner – a speech or presentation that always garners new clients – this should allow you to quickly convert it to a webinar, e-book, action guide or the like.


Secondary steps to take

Once you’ve taken those steps, I believe it’s wise to take a longer-term focus. To help you on this journey, I have several recommendations.

First, deploy the 80/20 rule to your digital strategies. Eighty percent of what you offer the market through all of your digital channels should be great content that is full of rich insights. Only twenty percent should be a pitch about your company, why you’re great, who you serve and the like. This applies primarily to your website, not your content strategy which should be 100% great ideas.

Second, build your content strategy and your social media strategy around the goals of your ideal clients. This means you’ll need to clearly understand who your ideal client is, what goals they are trying to accomplish and how you can help them. Then you’ll need to build an editorial calendar that contains topics that matter to ideal clients.

Third, deploy marketing automation as quickly as possible. Marketing automation platforms are the backbone of a digital strategy. The primary value of these platforms is not automation – it’s digital footprint tracking and lead scoring. Once you are deploying content across your website, emails and social media platforms, you’ll be getting traction from all corners of the market. So if you cannot track all of these data points and the entire digital footprint of individuals, you won’t be able to see what’s working and what needs to be changed.

Fourth, utilize the shallow-swim and deep-dive approach for content assets. I think of lead nurturing tactics like newsletters and blog-posts as shallow swims in your content for people who are not yet ready to take the big plunge. But deep-dive assets like webinars, action guides and e-books will get more registrations and actual leads.

Fifth, deploy the right gating strategy based on the give-more, get-more principle. In other words, the more you give, the more you can ask for in return. Usually this directly impacts how much information you can ask for in a registration form. Most people now expect to enter a fair amount of personal information (name, company, title, email) to access webinars and e-books. But they expect blogs, case studies and articles to be ungated.

Give these strategies a whirl and I’ll bet dollars to donuts that your digital marketing campaigns will take off like a rocket.