Many professional services firms still struggle with digital marketing. Some are stuck in the past and believe that word-of-mouth referrals are the only way to build their business. In fact, traditional referrals have been in decline for years. Others have invested half-heartedly in marketing technology but lack the knowledge, skills and commitment to make the most of them. And still other firms have gone all-in on certain tools, taking advantage of their powerful features without adopting the critical complementary tools required to deliver consistent results.
In this article, we will not recommend specific digital marketing platforms or technologies. Selecting the right technology and feature set for your business is complex and beyond the scope of this blog post. Instead, we’ll focus on the types of marketing technologies and digital techniques today’s most successful firms use to deliver their marketing programs. If you are late to the digital marketing revolution, or wondering what to focus on next, this article will give you a lay of the land so you understand what technologies you need to build a digital marketing strategy that produces exceptional results.
To set the stage, let’s begin with a definition.
Digital marketing solutions are online activities and technologies used to carry out a firm’s marketing strategy. Usually, these solutions incorporate cloud-based technologies to collect data, automate complex processes, interact with prospects and deliver insights in near-real time. Unlike conventional marketing solutions, which involve time-consuming manual processes, expensive physical marketing collateral and face-to-face interactions with business prospects, digital solutions—once the initial setup investment has been made—can reach wider audiences, more quickly and less expensively than their traditional counterparts. Digital solutions can complement, and in many cases replace, related traditional marketing techniques.
Most traditional marketing techniques have digital equivalents. For instance, direct mail and email serve similar functions, as do print advertising and online advertising. But digital marketing techniques have a number of benefits that their traditional counterparts lack:
So is traditional marketing dead? The short answer is, no. Not by a long shot. By definition, professional services firms are collections of individual experts. As a result, there will always be value in meeting people face to face—or, in our new post-Covid world, by video conference. In fact, Hinge’s own research has shown that the fastest-growing firms rely on a mix of both types of marketing.
Today, no professional services firm would consider going into business without a website. But many of these websites are passive, little more than online brochures. What if your website could be an active participant in your firm’s fortunes? It can. And it should. A high-performance website is the centerpiece of your marketing program, the place where new prospects discover you, learn to trust you and eventually decide to hire you. It engages people at every stage of the sales funnel. Most of the digital solutions in this top-10 list have some connection to your website.
A blog focused on delivering practical educational material on business challenges that are relevant to your audience. Your blog posts should focus mostly on challenges that your firm’s services can solve, though they can also be used to build thought leadership. For example, you might write about coming trends or the future of your industry. Most of your posts should be written with SEO keywords in mind.
A library of longer, high-value content, such as executive books, guides, webinar recordings, research reports and mini courses. Typically, these materials are gated behind a simple form. This type of content is primarily used to turn web visitors into new contacts, though it can also be used to nurture existing contacts
A thoughtful offer strategy, in which you present appropriate calls to action—additional educational content, demos and free consultations—depending on the context and where the web visitor is likely to be in the sales funnel.
Integration with other digital solutions, such as your CRM and marketing automation platform. A well-configured marketing stack should minimize manual work (for example, downloading a .csv file from one platform and loading it into another).
A sophisticated design. Signal to prospective buyers that your firm has credibility in spades. Because people respond subliminally to visual stimuli, design can be a powerful persuader. If you look like a leader, there’s a good chance you’ll be perceived as one, too.
A professional services firm is a collection of experts, and developing content is the most important way your experts can contribute to your firm’s marketing program. Content is the heart of every modern marketing strategy. And content marketing is the way you plan and deliver it.
Most content marketing programs begin with a firm’s blog, where SEO techniques (see below) are used to attract hundreds or thousands of people who have a problem you can solve and send them to your website. While most will never turn into clients, a certain proportion will need services like yours at some point in the future. Your blog is their entry point. If you publish a lot of high-quality content on similar topics, these highly motivated individuals will return again and again.
Each blog post should have a call to action (CTA) pointing to a relevant gated piece of high-value content, such as a longer format guide or ebook. That way, when a reader wants to learn more about a topic, they can exchange a small amount of personal information—most importantly their email address—for a more in-depth piece of content. You just turned a web visitor into a new contact and they just deepened their relationship with you. Over time, some of these readers will turn into fans. And eventually, when they need to hire expertise, your firm will be at the top of their list.
While blog posts are critical to content marketing, there are many other formats content can take, including videos, speeches, books and ebooks, webinars, courses, articles, white papers, guides, kits and e-newsletters. And that just scratches the surface.
One challenge is how to get a bunch of busy experts to sit down and do the writing. Sometimes the answer is as simple as setting aside time in their schedule to do the work. Another common approach is to hire an outside writer or team to draft the blog posts and guides for you. If you get a writer who knows your industry, all it takes is an interview with the subject matter expert to produce a high-quality piece of content.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the digital marketing solution that makes web content more visible. Its principles can be applied to almost any web page, but it is particularly effective in making educational expert content rank well in Google and other search engines. And most of that educational content is blog posts. It’s not unusual for a very high percentage of a firm’s web traffic—up to 80 or 90 percent—to enter the site through blog posts.
There are two main approaches to SEO: on-site and off-site. To have the best chances of achieving good results, you will need to address both.
On-site SEO is relatively simple. For each page you want to optimize, you research a keyword that you want to rank for in the search engines. Then you incorporate that keyword into your web copy, headline and page title. When you use on-site SEO, you are making it easy for Google to understand what the main focus of your page is, which is the first step in ranking well in the search results for your keyword. If you are very lucky, this is all it takes to achieve a premium ranking. But the vast majority of the time, you have more work to do. That’s where off-site SEO comes in.
Off-site SEO is straightforward too, though it’s a lot harder to pull off. This involves getting other websites, preferably sites with a high domain authority, to link back to your page. Google sees these links as “credibility votes” for your content. Sometimes these links happen without any action on your part. Somebody reads your post, then they write a post of their own and link back to yours. But often, you will need to take a more proactive approach to get these backlinks. There are many techniques SEO professionals use to generate backlinks, and they are rarely simple. Here are a couple of examples: Write a guest post on somebody else’s blog, then link back to a piece of your own content. Or use a tool that searches the web for broken links in third-party blog posts related to your area expertise. Then reach out to the person who manages the blog and offer a replacement link (to a relevant piece of your content), fixing their problem and yours at the same time. There are many more techniques you can try, as well.
A customer relationship management (CRM) system allows you to keep track of all your new business contacts and every interaction you have with them. When integrated with your website, you can see who downloaded pieces of content, filled out forms and is engaged with your content. The more sophisticated platforms can do much more, from tracking phone calls and emails to lead scoring and predicting revenue.
CRMs also allow you to segment your list by industry, size, role or any other category that you want to break out. This is very important when doing email marketing, as you may want to send different messages to different market segments.
CRMs are a critical tool for sales and marketing. They help you qualify leads, track business opportunities and decide which prospects to prioritize. At the same time, they provide a powerful, flexible interface between a firm’s website and its marketing automation platform.
Marketing automation gives firms the ability to reach select audiences with messages, offers and campaigns that are tailored for them. By automating these tasks, marketers can do more with fewer resources. Marketing automation tools can address a wide range of communication channels, including email, social media and text messaging.
Email is a core component of a content-based strategy, and automation solutions give marketers the ability to set up campaigns in advance, test different message configurations to a small segment of the list, then automatically send the most successful version to the rest of the group. These tools also allow you to set up multi-step nurture campaigns. When a web visitor, for instance, signs up for a piece of content, a nurture campaign can automatically follow up with additional related content over a period of days or weeks. That’s a great way to engage a warm audience and build trust over time.
Similarly, large multipost social media campaigns can be set up at up front, then sent out automatically according to a predetermined schedule.
To get the most from these tools, you will want to take advantage of features that test and analyze recipients’ behavior so you can adjust your approach and deliver even more resonant messages next time.
One way to think of social media is as the digital analog for face-to-face networking. LinkedIn, by far the most popular business-to-business social media networking platform, provides many ways to meet and interact with professionals at every level of an organization. And because LinkedIn is the de-facto business network, virtually all of your clients and prospects are on it already.
But social media plays a vital role in content marketing, too. It is an excellent way to spread the word about your content and make your expertise more visible. And social media’s sharing tools make it a snap for your readers to send your posts to others in their network.
If you have to choose one social media platform to focus on, make it LinkedIn. In fact, according to Hinge’s latest buyer research, this was the only platform to grow in adoption over the past two years. When you are ready to expand beyond LinkedIn, consider expanding your activity on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
If you are looking for an ideal way to share your expertise with a highly interested audience, you can’t do much better than a webinar. These video sessions, usually streamed live, position you as a knowledgeable domain expert. At the same time, they put one or more faces to your firm, giving your audience an idea of what it might be like to work with you. You can configure the software to allow questions, and you can even conduct real-time polls to make the sessions more interactive.
Most webinar attendees leave highly motivated, so be sure to include a clear call to action in case they want to take the next step in the relationship. If you record your webinars, consider sending a link to everyone who signed up, whether or not they actually attended. These recordings also make great free, gated or paid content on your website.
Should you charge for your webinars? That depends on your goals. If your goal is to reach the broadest possible audience and build visibility, make them free. You’ll get more attendees. If, however, you have a captive audience who is willing to pay to learn from you, or if you want to raise the perceived value of your webinar content, charging a fee—even a very high one—may make sense. You could even cap the number of attendees to position the event as exclusive.
Digital advertising solutions include a range of platforms and techniques for advertising on the web, in search engines and on social media. Digital ads have two major advantages over traditional print, television and radio advertising.
First, is cost. Traditional advertising is notoriously expensive. That’s because it requires a series of expensive services, including design, production and distribution. Digital ads, by contrast, are relatively lightweight—often text only or text and an image. You can spend as little or as much as you want on digital advertising. Want to test a pay-per-click ad for one week at $10 a day? Easy. Want to invest a million dollars a month on a splashy social media campaign? That’s your choice.
Second, is performance. Because most traditional ads have no direct connection between the ad and the outcome, it can be very difficult to determine if a specific ad delivered the expected results. But digital ads have a built in way to see results as they come in. That gives you power to immediately stop ads that aren’t working, and tweak and test your better performing ads to improve their results.
There are a variety of digital ad platforms to explore—from search engine advertising to social media ads to remarketing. And all provide robust demographic targeting options so you can get in front of just the right people. When you are struggling to reach a particular audience, digital advertising is worth exploring.
Web analytics are an essential tool if you want to understand who is visiting your website, where they are coming from and what they are interested in. While you can’t identify an individual visitor by name, that’s not the best use of web analytics, anyway. Rather, you should be looking for broad trends—where are most people entering, what kinds of content are they consuming, how much time are they spending, how are they moving through your site? By asking questions like these, you can make well-informed, strategic changes to your website and your marketing program.
Web analytics is dominated by Google Analytics, a free solution that any website can use. For most firms, this is all you need. It’s powerful, feature-rich and made by the folks SEO is intended to impress. However, if you need specialized functionality or even more power, there are a bevy of other applications on the market that may better meet your needs.
Marketing analytics allow you to measure and report on the performance of your marketing program. Often, these tools are baked right into digital marketing solutions, such as your marketing automation platform, social media tools and CRM. Equipped with data from your analytics you can become a much smarter marketer. While they may not explain why your customers behave the way they do, analytics allow you to see how they behave in different situations. Often, this is all the insight you need to deliver a better experience and build engagement.
If you want to integrate your analytics into a single platform, or need more powerful features, check out one of the many third-party digital marketing analytics tools on the market. There’s something out there for everyone.
Some people are visual learners, and when given the choice between written content and a video they will always choose the latter. But it is far from the only reason to incorporate video solutions into your marketing program. Video is the most engaging format on social media, and it is shared far more often. According to Twitter, “Tweets with video attracted 10x more engagements than Tweets without video.” And these trends apply to all social platforms, including LinkedIn.
Then there is its flexibility. Video can be used and repurposed in so many ways: on your website, on social media, even at live events. You can even publish video blog posts—and if you need to make them more SEO friendly, simply add a transcript below the video. On LinkedIn and other social media platforms, you can add closed captions to make your video accessible to people who don’t have the sound turned on.
With each passing year, these digital marketing solutions become smarter. Artificial intelligence (AI) has begun to appear in many platforms to handle certain functions—such as automated responses and predictive analytics—that in the past would have been done by people. As AI matures, it is likely to transform marketing, allowing firms to find, attract, qualify and nurture prospects faster, more efficiently and with far greater individual customization.
At the same time, a powerful counterforce is making some marketing tasks more difficult. New privacy laws, such as Europe’s GDPR, the California Privacy Rights Act and Brazil’s LGPD, target the data-collection machinery of digital marketing solutions, and the industry is still wrestling with the implications. As data privacy regulations become more widespread and accepted, marketing technologies will likely adapt by identifying and better addressing the needs of your best prospects. Marketing will become less about convincing unmotivated people to buy and more about customizing and optimizing the buyer journey. People who raise their hand and express an interest will be given more ways to experience a firm’s expertise—in contexts that are more relevant and meaningful. In theory, this could shorten the sales cycle and make closing the deal far easier.
No doubt, these solutions will evolve in ways most of us can’t even imagine. Which is more reason to start build a sophisticated digital marketing strategy today. The way professional services firms are found, vetted and selected has changed dramatically in just a few years. And this trend is only going to continue. If you invest in some or all of these digital marketing solutions now, you will be ahead of the curve. Today, less than half of firms have, or are in the process of installing, a robust digital infrastructure. That’s means you have a golden opportunity to build a powerful digital competitive advantage.
Related: Four Professional Services Findings From Our Inside the Buyer’s Brain Research