Insights and Resources

How should a large professional services firm approach digital marketing?

By Conal McClure

views5We often get asked, how we apply our approach to digital marketing within large professional services firms.

The question arises because we make no secret of the fact that the real power and opportunity in digital marketing is when it is highly targeted, underpinned by a narrow position, clearly defined personas, and very targeted messaging.

If you’ve followed our content for any time you’ll see this as a consistent theme that may seem to be at odds with how a large firm operates.

Within a professional services context, this equates to narrowing around expertise and using this to establish a narrow and differentiated position to attract a particular targeted type of client.

Before I tackle the issue of narrow positioning in large firms, I’d like to outline that when we talk about positioning, we do so from 3 perspectives.

Firm level narrow positioning

Firms can position as a whole away from a generalist focus to a narrow specialist positioning.

At a firm level, a specialist positioning would be baked into the brand.

Positioning around a problem

A firm can differentiate themselves by taking positions on a particular type of problem faced by a particular type of client.

Demonstrated positioning

A firm can earn a position with a particular type of client with a problem, by solving their problem either directly or indirectly.

In one sense this is similar as positioning around a problem, it just may not necessarily start out as a formal position taken. It may be something the firm grows into organically.

So what about large firms?

Typically, the larger the firm, the more difficult it is to present a narrow specialised position, even though the large firm is usually made up of a number of highly specialised divisions and experts.

Broad positioning works in professional services firms (such as accounting, law and engineering) where there is a benefit in receiving integrated advice across a broad cross-section of expertise and this is where the large firm is best positioned.

This presents some challenges for the large firm however from a marketing and new business generation perspective:

  1. It’s difficult to differentiate on expertise, when the breadth of expertise is so wide and services offered are (at least on the surface) identical to those offered by competitors.
  2. A wide positioning, makes targeted, expertise based marketing difficult. Hence we see a heavy emphasis on raising brand awareness as the focus of marketing teams, and not so much on lead generation.

Our contention is that irrespective of the size of the firm, the ability to attract higher quality and higher value clients is dependent on the primary differentiator being around expertise and knowledge.

This makes a targeted digital marketing approach no less relevant for a large firm. The power of digital marketing is the ability to narrowly target “ideal” clients with a particular problem, and demonstrate expertise.

And while firm level narrow positioning may not be an option, this only makes the importance of being able to position around specific problems, and demonstrate expertise all the more important.

How does it work?

Our approach is based on the concept of having a game plan. A game plan has the following characteristics:

  1. There is an audience to target, as narrowly defined as possible and with a problem you are well qualified to solve. This problem doesn’t necessarily have to be closely tied to a service line. It can be framed to be much more specific, immediate and attractive to the target market.
  2. Highlighting the problem is used to attract interest, and the aim is to convert them to a lead by joining them to a nurturing program centered around their problem (usually by providing an email address).
  3. A nurturing program driven by content is designed to strategically reframe the context of the lead over time to see the bigger picture of how your firm is well positioned to deliver the expertise they need.
  4. Finally, we optimise the messaging and points of conversion to convert leads into new business opportunities.

The outcome of a game plan is a new business opportunity with a lead won off the back of the demonstration of expertise (i.e. not from referral). The lead is already educated and convinced the firm has the capability to deliver them a better outcome.

From the perspective of these leads, the firm is strongly positioned and differentiated as experts specialised in their particular problems.

For the larger firms, it is unlikely there will ever be a digital game plan aligned with the firm level position. Instead we would expect multiple game plans to be developed over time to position around different audiences with problems.

In summary

Being able to position and differentiate on the basis of expertise is a fundamental capability required for professional services firms to increase the quality and value of new clients.

The difficulty for large firms to achieve this from a broad market position has shifted the focus of marketing teams to broader based brand awareness and not so much on developing new sources and capabilities to generate new business.

Digital marketing in the form of highly targeted game plans can harness the capability to achieve expertise based positioning and differentiation and deliver new sources of previously untapped sources of higher value clients.

This is perhaps one of the greatest opportunities available to professional services marketers today.

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