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Digital marketing strategy in professional services and B2B firms

The essential ingredients of a B2B Digital Strategy

Professional service marketing has rarely ever been about creating immediate business transactions. It's always been a long-term effort of building reputation, demonstrating capabilities and showcasing credibility through opinion and thought leadership.

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Whilst content marketing and promotion through social media remains a core activity of professional services digital marketing, most marketers experience a rapidly expanding gap between the demand for material and their ability to consistently execute on that demand internally. The sources of thought leadership content are usually the practising professionals, who are often too busy and aligned with managing ongoing client caseloads and maintaining existing client bases.

Given the economic pressure on firms to maintain – and improve – profitability, as with most initiatives, developing a digital strategy tends to be viewed as less important than shorter-term business development methods. But whilst most professional service firms can say they have acquired new business through digital means, digital still remains marginalised, or reduced to tactical interpretations such as 'tweeting', or viewed merely as an extension of 'communications'.

The effect this has is it creates an inconsistent 'stop/start' digital experience. Firms don't see the return on the financial investment, but ultimately suffer a lack of vision that delivering a consistent digital experience could actually be the differentiator and source of competitive advantage that often eludes professional services firms.

What is a digital strategy?

Put simply, a digital strategy is the process that a professional service firm undertakes to determine its own vision, goals, opportunities and initiatives in order to maximise the overall business benefits of 'digital' to the organisation.

Developing a digital strategy is about:

  • a) Identifying opportunities and/or challenges within a firm where digital assets can provide a possible solution.
  • b) Identifying the needs of clients that are closely related to those opportunities and challenges.
  • c) Creating a 'vision' as to how digital marketing and digital assets will meet and fulfill client needs.
  • d) Developing a digital plan which can deliver the vision.

A digital strategy will help the firm articulate how digital marketing will transform the firm in terms of efficiencies and profitability. By developing a strategy, firms will inspire employees and professional practitioners by detailing the future potential of digital marketing, and communicating its strategic priority within the firm.

The strategy will not only help the firm establish where the focus of digital marketing should be, as well as its investment and placement of resources, but it will also ensure the firm has a consistent approach to digital marketing, and act as a keystone and valuable point of reference to ensure digital marketing helps grow the firm and support its audience’s needs.

What will firms get out of a digital strategy?

Ultimately by developing a digital strategy, firms will be provided with a focus in relation to its digital marketing activities by developing a robust management system which helps the firm set, review and control performance across all digital marketing activities. A well-managed digital marketing strategy will help a firm:

1)    Increase its market exposure.

2)    Increase clients’ knowledge of the firm's products and services.

3)    Save money through a reduction in traditional marketing spend or reduction in service costs.

4)    Add value to the firm's brand online.

This in turn will:

  • 1)      Contribute to growth objectives.
  • 2)      Contribute to client retention objectives.
  • 3)      Contribute to client acquisition objectives.

Managing expectations

The success of a digital strategy hinges on how well expectations within the firm are managed. An important part of this process involves engaging with partners of the firm and stakeholders relevant to the digital strategy. Early engagement is likely to generate greater understanding and willingness to engage with the digital strategy. At its most inclusive, practitioners are involved in co-constructing the elements of the digital strategy. Often the best way involves setting up a consultative or steering group.

Digital strategy can be a contentious issue with varying views. Everyone has an opinion on digital as it touches everyday lives. So it is essential that marketers should engage with representatives from across as many perspectives as possible within the firm. Bringing different stakeholder groups together around a common strategy can facilitate constructive dialogue to help overcome conflicts, particularly where communication has historically been poor.

The steering group should:

a)      Have a purpose

It is important to be clear form the outset what the role of the steering group is in the formation of the digital strategy, recognising that different stakeholders may have differing expectations. Is the steering group purely a mechanism to communicate results? Will it be used for research purposes? Or will it actively be involved in setting and driving forward the agenda?

Because a critical part of the digital strategy is measurement of activities, the purpose of the group may be aligned to:

1)      Defining the strategy - what is the strategy meant to do?

2)      Who are the key stakeholders, and how are they to be ‘engaged’?

3)      What does success look like? What will be the key performance indicators of the strategy?

4)      How will measurements and key performance indicators be aligned to the firm’s objectives?

5)      Who are the relevant individuals and human resources that will be responsible for key performance indicators?

6)      How will fluid and clear reporting mechanisms be built that are understood by the firm’s management?

b)      Have terms of reference

It is good practice to set out the terms of reference for each stakeholder group. This should make clear:

1)      What their role as a stakeholder is.

2)      What level of influence they will have.

3)      The level of commitment they are making.

c)      Set the stage of engagement

Ideally, stakeholder groups should be engaged from the inception of the initiative. However, in many cases this may not be possible because of timescales and deadlines. Therefore, stakeholders are often presented with the opportunity to engage with objectives or a strategy that is already largely prescribed. So it is important to be clear about the purpose and the terms of reference.

A good starting point is:

1)   How digital marketing is driving the acquisition of new business.

2)   How digital marketing is reducing traditional marketing spend.

3)   How digital marketing is helping to retain clients.

d)      Communicate (lots!)

In many cases, the same stakeholders are facing increasing demands not only in their own roles but also to get involved in other initiatives. So although they will often recognise the relevance of the digital strategy, they may not necessarily have much time to invest in the details.

However, if the relationship with the stakeholders is to be constructive, they need to be made aware of what is being planned with enough time to allow a dialogue so that their comments and concerns are addressed.

Do not wait for the timetabled face-to-face meetings but make use of other channels of communication to keep the group informed as ideas and activities develop.

 e)      Be transparent (politics kill initiatives!)

Marketers should aim to provide unbiased insights and maintain an objective and impartial approach. Although it must be recognised that the steering group members may have significant knowledge (and this knowledge should be utilised where possible), the outputs need to be independent of organisational or departmental agendas.

Developing a relationship of trust and respect is based on transparency. This is helped by communicating results and any analysis at an early stage, inviting comment, and being clear that comments are accepted or rejected on digital, not political, grounds.

f)       Bridge the science-practice divide

Digital methods are often novel and complex. Stakeholders are usually not familiar with them and the process of analysis can be a black-box to non-digitals. It is important to take the time to explain why a particular method is being used. Although the method may be complex, it is usually trying to simplify what is usually a complex real-world problem.

Worries about oversimplification need to be addressed or at least recognised and reported in any outputs:

1) How digital marketing is improving upon lead quality.

2) How digital marketing is increasing lead quantity.

3) How digital marketing is making sales cycles shorter.

4) How digital marketing is increasing client awareness.

5) How digital marketing is improving cross-selling opportunities.

6) How digital marketing is driving positive client feedback.

Conclusion

To make the most of the potential that digital marketing offers, professional service firms need to go back to the fundamentals and focus on devising a well-considered digital strategy. It is only through a digital strategy that a firm can deliver a consistent digital experience, potentially resulting in market differentiation and competitive advantage.

However, it is important to remember that the success of the strategy will be heavily dependent on stakeholder expectations. Taking a collaborative approach with key internal stakeholders – in terms of both developing and executing the digital strategy - will be instrumental in managing those expectations, and setting solid foundations for the firm’s present and future digital activities.

By Graham Laing

Graham Laing is the man behind Rokman Laing, a specialist marketing consultancy for the professional services sector. A Chartered Marketer with 15 years experience, Graham consults and project manages the implementation of digital and marketing strategies within a range of professional service firms including law, accountancy, architecture, engineering and other advisory organisations to enhance lead generation, brand awareness and client acquisition. His blog, has gained considerable traction for its sharp and commercially astute take on the marketing issues affecting professional service firms. You can connect with Graham via Twitter Twitter (@rokmanlaing) or LinkedIn.

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