Dean reflects on SAS’s recent knowledge sharing breakfast seminar – ‘Professional services marketing for the new economy’. He discusses how professional services firms can better use digital communications to create more meaningful connections with their audiences.
1. We need to better understand our audiences
There are big gaps in our knowledge of professional services audiences and how they behave online. Do we really know exactly what they want, when they want it and where? What's on their minds today and what will be on their minds tomorrow? Do they want to be passive or active in the way they deal with you? Do they really care about what you've got to say?
And although we have a relatively good idea of what a typical buyer of professional services is looking for (e.g. quality, technical excellence, end-to-end capability, service and responsiveness), we often fail to think about how these things translate at the human level - their real motivations - and therefore how to create online experiences to match.
Naturally, to get to the bottom of these questions we need to do a lot more research. But this doesn't need to be as scary or costly as it sounds - there is now a legion of online tools that can be easily deployed in a short period of time and for a relatively low cost. These can range from simple online surveys to basic social media listening and monitoring tools.
If you need to be convinced of the value of the new types of research and monitoring tools available to us within a B2B context, just check out what IBM did with their 'Listening for Leads' programme. It's an incredibly simple yet effective idea - but most professional services are way behind the curve on this type of thing.
2. We need to find new and innovative ways of engaging our audiences
Although most professional services firms have improved the usability of their sites over the last few years, we need to show more imagination in the way we use online channels to create engagement.
A relatively simple thing to do is to make complex information and data as easy to understand as possible. The use of interactive timelines, data-visualisation and information graphics can be useful here.
Although research shows some audiences (especially in-house legal counsel) are more likely to consume rather than create content using social channels, it also highlights that blogs and LinkedIn are becoming increasingly important in influencing buying decisions. Many professional services audiences are often interested in very specialist subjects and therefore come looking for answers to very specific and detailed questions. This is exactly where social media works best - by creating spaces, networks and communities where 'niche conversations' can take place. A good example of this is from McKinsey, who have recently used Twitter as a live debate tool where people can ask their experts questions on a particular subject.
And finally there's the business development process. Traditionally a big gap exists between the comfort zones of the marketing team and fee earners - with marketers being most happy generating awareness and interest and fee earners concentrating on gaining repeat business and referrals from existing clients. This can create a vacuum at the most important point of the sales funnel - when potential clients are evaluating and committing to a business relationship.
Powered by new types of conversations, this gap can be bridged with the help of social media. Marketers should help fee earners understand the role social networks can play in the sales process and set-up the relevant tools and guidelines to support them. Likewise, fee earners should be constantly identifying topics of interest and connecting with clients through the ongoing monitoring and use of these channels.
3. We need to adopt a new approach to digital communications
The traditional approach to developing and launching digital projects 'in a straight line' doesn't necessarily maximise the opportunity to truly connect with your audiences. Each project usually operates with scant regard for how the 'chosen channel' can work together with others to create something more powerful.
They are usually based on a meagre amount of audience insight. If you're lucky there may be some usage stats or user testing results, although this often adds little knowledge to what you already know. And combined with loose objectives and KPIs (if any at all), it is unsurprising when these projects fail to truly engage with people and result in little or no measurable return on investment.
Going forward we need to take a much more holistic view of what we're trying to achieve. We need to follow a platform neutral approach that first and foremost is based around the discovery of a common interest - a focus for your communications that aligns real user needs with overall business strategy and market understanding (your role in it and its perception of you).
Based on the 'sweet spot' of these common interests we can then plan and prepare our resources in a way that fits with the overall objectives. We also need to think carefully about how content can be shared across different platforms and channels rather than just being influenced by existing operational structures, resources and what is currently available. Only then should you start thinking about the platforms and experiences that will create the best ROI and how they can be linked together in the most meaningful way.
And finally - we need to continually monitor the effectiveness of the platforms and experiences we have created, adjusting or even abandoning them and creating new ones in their place if they are not connecting with audiences in the way we had planned.
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