21 Dec

Does digital marketing work for professional services firms?

Professional services firms should in theory be one of the most prolific users of the internet and digital media. Their business is about knowledge, ideas and relationships; perfect.

From my observations, they lag behind as an industry online, instead of leading the pack. I asked David Maister, one of the leading international business strategist focused on professional services what he thinks the role of digital marketing is in this industry, and he wrote a blog post that received a great response.

In the post, he notes although the opportunity to demonstrate expertise is there, he wonders how much hard evidence there is that it works for prof services, firms: “I’m not sure how much hard evidence there really is about the benefits of the web in marketing professional services” and; “It’s still early days for blogging, podcasting and videocasting, but I’d have to guess that, for most professional service firms, these are not high return activities – again, because I’m not sure that the “high-level” buyers are listening and watching.”

After reading the comments from people who are in the industry and who consult on this topic (like Michelle Golden and James Cherkoff), I had a few thought about this.

Top tier firms vs mid tier and small business
Firstly, I asked an incomplete question. A small business local accountant is a completely different beast from a top tier, multi-billion dollar turn over business and their objectives will be different. For example, where everyone knows the top tier brands, one of the key objectives of small brands is simply getting on the radar of potential clients.

David wonders if the “high level” buyers are listening and watching online. He’s probably right, but I think the real opportunity is in that the traditional media increasingly sources their ideas and content online. What if Bill D. Green CEO of Accenture wrote a blog? Would Wall Street Journal editors keep an eye out? You bet. David Meerman Scott’s book, The New Rules of Marketing and PR offers some wonderful ideas about how to drive PR using the web.

Budget vs time
David Maister wonders how much of their budget he would advise his customers to dedicate. I think it is more about time than money. For most firms this is a greater constraint than money. Although the cost of distribution of ideas is cheap online, capturing and developing the sort of content that clients want to read is time consuming.

Marketing for talent
For many services firms, the “war for talent” may be a greater incentive to market online than anything else. Now, this audience will go online to listen and look and I know of many companies who spend most of their marketing budget on getting talent, rather than clients.

One of the key issues with professional services brands is that what is offered is really not that differentiated. The differentiation needs to be about how they do things; how their people are more accessible, more interested, more capable. How do you break down the barriers?Clayton Utz vodcast

A nice example is Clayton Utz, a local Australian law firm using video in a very simple but effective way; two partners having a discussion about a specific topic of expertise. Apart from meeting these guys in person, there is nothing that will get me closer at a human, emotional level than watching them on video. It is exactly at this human, emotional level that business is won and lost when all else is equal.
Although the point David Maister makes about “proof that it works” is valid, if implemented properly, there is probably more metrics around online activity than say, sponsoring a yacht for a few million a year. To some extent it is also a chicken and egg question; if you don’t invest in digital marketing you’re probably not tracking it’s performance either.

Now, where are the prof services firms with the hard facts?

PS: KPMG outperformed everyone this year and turned over $US 19 Billion. Judging by their website, their digital effort wasn’t the one that delivered that growth:)

With thanks to David Maister for starting this discussion.