Friday, June 27, 2008

Marketing for Leads

So how well is your marketing working? Few technical consulting and design firms can answer that question with any certainty. Some pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into activities to promote and position their firm in the marketplace, but can produce little evidence that the investment is paying off. Others choose not to spend much at all on marketing, concluding that the apparent benefits fail to justify greater expenditures.

In my experience there is one marketing metric that trumps all others: How many prospective and existing clients call you in response to your marketing activities. If your marketing is not directly generating leads, let me suggest you rethink what you're doing. This article offers some ideas.

First, Let's Define Terms

Before we go further, I need to clarify what I mean by marketing. In our business we commonly use the term "marketing" as a euphemism for sales. I suspect that's because many of us are uncomfortable with the concept of selling, so we call it marketing to make it seem more palatable. But marketing and sales are two distinct, yet complementary, activities:

  • Marketing is the indirect client contact that drives prospective clients to your door. This includes activities such as publishing, speaking, direct mail, advertising, and public relations. The primary goal is to gain the client's interest.

  • Sales is the direct client contact that pulls prospective clients through your door. This includes activities such as sales calls, sales presentations, proposals, and negotiations. The primary goal is to gain the client's commitment.

Marketing sets the stage for sales. It helps build your reputation, define your brand, and create a comfort level by making you a known entity. Marketing also incorporates the research and planning that enables you to determine what markets and clients you should be pursuing.

The Key: Serve the Client

Probably the biggest shortcoming in the way most firms market is the characteristic self-serving focus. "Look at us!" the procession of glossy brochures, project briefs, newsletters, and website copy screams. This all-too-common strategy seems to ignore the obvious: Clients don't see significant differences between firms and aren't interested in the hype. So even the flashiest marketing materials are mostly ignored.

A better approach is to concentrate most of your marketing efforts on serving existing and prospective clients with helpful information and insights. You don't need to tell people how qualified your firm is; demonstrate it. Create "stealth" marketing materials that, rather than focus on your firm, provide content that clients want to read. I can tell you from experience, that marketing from a service-centered perspective generates leads. Prospective clients will call you.
Here are some successful approaches, ranging from the simple to the sophisticated that I'm personally familiar with:

Pass along article links via email. This is perhaps the simplest, yet most personal, marketing tip I can suggest. Always be thinking about prospective and existing clients as you come across information relevant to their needs. With internet content, a simple embedded link in an email is a great way to show you care.

Send news or regulatory alerts pertinent to clients. This can be done in a variety of ways, from the single email mentioned above to mass mailings to clients (email mailing lists are best developed on an opt-in basis; you don't want to join the ranks of spammers!). One of the most painless ways to collect this kind of information is to subscribe to free email newsletters.

Start a blog, forum, or wiki for sharing and discussion with clients. Blogs are common these days, although I've found few devoted to our industry. Wikis are an emerging online tool for collaboration. How much you can get clients to participate in these is open to question; I suppose it comes down to how much value you offer!

Create a client resource website. Your competitors' websites all focus on self-promotion. How about breaking from the pack and providing a site with information clients really value? I attempt to model this suggestion with my own website. Check it out.

Develop checklists, templates, forms, and other tools for clients. These can be offered through your website or blog or as the need arises. I have several tools available for my clients through the "Consultant's Toolbox" area of my site. Next to the articles page, it is the most visited part of my site.

Publish and present. This is classic marketing advice, but too often ignored by professionals in our industry. Most firms do a little of this, but few do enough. Publishing and speaking are great ways to build your reputation and serve clients at the same time.

Provide free seminars and webinars. Many firms have used seminars over the years to attract client interest. The new format is webinars. Although these are rarely as effective a learning tool as onsite meetings, they fit easily into busy people's schedules and are easier to prepare.

Hold a strategy roundtable for clients to share and discuss best practices. Clients love to hear what their peers are doing. The best roundtables I've seen are facilitated by an expert with his or her own ideas, supplemented by a discussion of what participants have found works or doesn't.

Undoubtedly, you can think of other service-centered marketing strategies beyond the ones described above. The important thing is to create content and activities that clients will value. Don't tell them about your expertise and experience; demonstrate it in various ways designed to help clients. That's the best possible marketing, and a sure way to help bring new business to your door.

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