The Power of Marketing During a Leadership Transition

leadership transition
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If you have been recently named as your organization’s new CEO or Managing Partner, it’s very likely that you have a great many priorities on your plate. To name just a few, you’re mastering day-to-day operations, boosting staff morale, assessing your service mix, and responding to marketplace changes. You might even be tasked with turning around a struggling organization.

Given the pressures that demand a new leader’s attention, it’s no surprise that marketing typically gets lost in the shuffle during the initial months of a leadership transition. But over the past 10 years or so, marketing has gone through fundamental and radical changes, and as a result, the function now has a greater potential than ever to transform a professional services firm’s fortunes. In most cases, however, new leaders fail to appreciate how much of a positive difference introducing a new marketing approach can make.

In this post, I’ll share some thoughts about this revolutionary marketing approach, why it can be so relevant to new leaders like you, and what you need to do now to start your firm on the road to greater visibility, growth and profits.

But before I do that, let’s take a moment to consider the potential impact of retooling your marketing approach — especially now, when you have so many other priorities competing for your time and energy.

The Bottom-line Benefits of High-Growth Marketing

At my firm, we have been studying high-growth professional services firms for ten years. Our ever-growing body of research is specifically focused on identifying what the most successful firms do differently than average firms. According to our most recent study, high-growth firms benefit from significant advantages compared with their no-growth peers, including:

  • 3% median annual growth rate
  • 20% average profitability (vs. 10% for other firms)
  • $180,000 median revenue per employee (vs. $152,000)
  • Much higher levels of visibility and perceived expertise
  • 215% average increase in online leads within the first year

Keep in mind: some of these high-growth firms experience even greater performance. But why? Their secret isn’t hiring better people or investing in new lead management software. Rather, it’s their commitment to a new approach to marketing that stresses thought leadership and visibility over personal connections and networking. To put this another way, what you know is more important than whom you know.

Traditionally, marketing often functioned like an isolated outpost, with practitioners simply carrying out tasks to support sales. In contrast, modern, high-growth marketing is deeply integrated into the business itself and changes how business development works. In fact, it is tied closely to the very heart of the professional organization: its internal team of subject matter experts.

Shifting to knowledge-based marketing means changing how you think about and implement marketing. And there is no more perfect moment to institute this kind of change than during a leadership transition. Quite simply, this is your opportunity to transform your firm.

Where Traditional Marketing Falls Short

To appreciate how revolutionary a high-growth approach to marketing is for professional services organizations, let’s compare it with the more conventional marketing approach. Traditional marketing focuses on three goals:

  • Increase brand awareness. Generally, firms that want to improve their brand awareness invest in various on- and offline advertising platforms, along with sponsorships, PR and other broadly targeted tactics. Such techniques, however, are passive and easy for audiences to ignore, so one needs to pay for multiple exposures in order to make an impression. Another challenge is that there is no easy way to time such exposures to coincide with the moment when a target prospect actually needs the service. This is a chief reason why a very high percentage of firms’ advertising and other passive exposures are wasted.
  • Promote services and products. In traditional marketing, one of a firm’s core goals is to promote its products and services. To do so, firms invest in brochures, sales sheets and website updates to describe and support sales. But even with the largest marketing budget, there can still be a problem: if a firm’s products and services aren’t substantively different from the competition, all the marketing materials in the world will have little persuasive power on their own.
  • Create and nurture personal relationships. Professional services firms typically spend a great deal of time and effort in building personal relationships. Tactics may involve attending networking events, treating prospects to meals or golf, and traveling to conferences or trade shows to get more face time with buyers and potential referral sources. Without question, these tactics work. But they all come with a significant limitation. A firm’s business development personnel can only cultivate as many prospects as their available time and interpersonal skills allow. For this reason, the growth potential of a firm that uses traditional marketing tactics is constrained by its business development team’s size and talents.

How High-Growth Marketing Works Differently

High-growth marketing takes an approach that is entirely different from traditional — beginning with its goals:

  • Share what you know with prospects, by demonstrating expertise and establishing trust.
  • Leverage social media to build your firm’s visibility and reach vast new markets.
  • Nurture prospects methodically, by providing a steady stream of valuable content until they are ready to buy.

Let’s take a look at these goals and explore how a high-growth firm achieves them.

Education is at the very heart of high-growth professional services marketing. More than ever before, we live in an information-rich world, and people want and expect the information they receive to be mostly free. At the same time, one of the fundamental truths about marketing continues to be valid: building trust with a prospect is a critical prerequisite to the first sale. Savvy firm leaders know that the most effective way to nurture this sense of trust is to give buyers a taste of their firm’s expertise.

This shift in emphasis changes a lot of a firm’s marketing priorities. For example, instead of these firms’ top experts spending hours each week “working the room” networking with strangers, they blog, write articles and speak on topics of great relevance and interest to their target audiences. Over a surprisingly short period of time, they can reposition themselves as thought leaders in their clients’ industries (a market presence that we at Hinge call Visible Experts®). In the process, they not only enhance the reputations of their firms and serve as powerful brand ambassadors, but they also become more visible themselves.

Another core tactic in high-growth marketing is that a firm’s experts publish much of their material online. One reason for doing so is the fact that the first reflex for most of today’s buyers is to check Google whenever they encounter a problem or need an answer. That means that if a firm’s experts methodically optimize their open-access materials (including blog posts, informational guides, and so on) for online search, people who are looking for their answers and expertise can find them with a quick and easy Google search.

Keep in mind, only a small percentage of people who download or receive a firm’s no-cost educational materials will ever be qualified prospects. Fortunately, thanks to the power and reach of the Internet, the number of businesses that begin engaging with a firm in this way is large enough to create a healthy stream of high-quality potential clients. And, even though few if any of these individuals may be ready to buy today, a significant percentage of them will need services like yours someday. Even more powerful is the fact that these buyers will come from markets across the country, and even around the world. Firms that have built reputations at the local or regional level in the past find they can significantly expand their lists of prospects.

Capturing a small amount of personal information is the first step in turn blog readers into leads. Most readers who are interested in a topic are willing to exchange a little data about themselves (their name, email address and company, for example) to receive a piece of content they find valuable. High-growth firms create these high-value pieces on an ongoing basis, for the sole purpose of giving them away to blog readers and other visitors to their websites.

After a firm has collected a reader’s email address, the nurturing process begins. This process takes the form of helpful, “non-spammy” email marketing that provides more of the kinds of insights and educational content the readers want. The additional educational content a firm provides them may include such resources as articles, guides, webinars, e-books, videos and more. Over time, these individuals turn increasingly to the firm for its expertise and insights. Then, when these individuals are ready to buy services, appearing at the very top of their list is the firm they have come to trust. And, according to research Hinge has done, in many cases, they will hire that firm without even considering anyone else.

It can be eye-opening to realize how educational content can become the fuel of a marketing strategy. However, please don’t assume that high-growth marketing relies only on creating and giving away content. Our research reveals that those firms that mix traditional and online marketing outperform those that do online marketing only. But it’s important to note that the specific “offline” marketing techniques they use generally support a thought-leadership platform (speaking engagements and partnership marketing are two examples). That being said, there may be traditional marketing tactics that are working for you, but that are unrelated to thought leadership (such as telemarketing or trade shows). If so, keep doing what you’re doing — but make sure it works as part of a balanced marketing program.

Here’s one last thought that may be helpful during your firm’s leadership transition, as you consider moving forward with a high-growth marketing approach. In our research, we conducted interviews and gathered data from hundreds of professional services firms and, in the process, identified several characteristics shared by most high-growth firms. First, these firms tend to be highly specialized, and on average offer 40% fewer services than their no-growth peers. Second, they generally are well-differentiated within their markets. Third and finally, many of them conduct frequent research (at least quarterly) on their target markets, giving them exceptional insights that they can use to develop content and fine-tune their marketing processes.

The Importance of Acting Soon — and Why

If you are an incoming managing partner or CEO, why is it important for you to embrace a high-growth marketing program — especially now, when there may be so many other challenges facing you and your organization?

During any leadership transition, employees at every level within an organization expect change. They are looking to you to bring fresh ideas — perhaps even dynamic, radical new initiatives. And their openness to transformational change under your leadership will never be greater than it is right now.

Evolving from a comfortable traditional marketing program — even with all its disconnects and shortcomings — to a high-performance system can be challenging. This is especially true if employees feel threatened or inconvenienced by the change, or by the new marketing skills and mindset that will be required of them. Even so, you will have the greatest chance of success at the outset of your leadership term, when people in your organization are at least somewhat prepared for — and perhaps looking forward to — a seismic shift in strategy.

There is another compelling reason to act sooner rather than later. Based on our extensive research of professional services firms, the high-growth approach to marketing explained above affects many fundamental elements and functions within your business, including:

  • Your experts’ day-to-day activities. To support your content marketing program, your experts will need to devote more of their business development time to writing, speaking and hosting webinars. To be most effective, they must shift their focus from networking and selling to educating.
  • How clients and prospects view your experts, and your firm. As your firm’s thought leaders write and speak on topics that your clients care about, they will become respected, trusted authorities. And when clients hire your firm, your experts’ recommendations will tend to be accepted more readily and with greater enthusiasm.
  • Your success in closing business. One of the surprising benefits of high-growth marketing is that closing deals gets much easier as your reputation and visibility increase. In addition, as mentioned above, your firm will find itself in more no-bid situations, meaning that you will close deals more quickly, on average.
  • Whom you select as clients. High-performance firms are choosy about whom they target as clients, thanks to the firms’ heightened reputations and improved supply of leads. Smart leaders build this selectivity into their firms’ market positioning, raising their perceived value.
  • The specific services you offer. You may find your firm narrowing its service offerings as you focus on the things you are known for and do best. High-growth firms often approach their service mix very strategically, preferring to pursue a niche rather than broad coverage.
  • How your firm differentiates itself. As your firm’s expertise becomes more visible in your market, you will find that you have more powerful ways to distinguish yourself from more conventional competitors. Not only will differentiating your firm be easier — it will also be easier to prove.

All of these improvements will make your new role as leader easier. As your enhanced approach to marketing and positioning gains momentum and your visibility begins its steady climb, you may also find that many initial concerns — such as workforce morale and the firm’s financial performance — simply melt away.

The high-growth approach to marketing explained above will position you to face your leadership transition with a wide-reaching and dynamic strategy. You will be able to begin your tenure with an exciting, positive message and, just as importantly, a clear vision that will position your firm for long-term success. It won’t be simply a change in leadership, but also an evolution from a service provider to a high-profile knowledge leader.

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Elizabeth Harr

Partner at Hinge Marketing
Elizabeth Harr is an accomplished entrepreneur and experienced executive who heads the technology team at Hinge. Elizabeth brings over a decade’s experience in strategic planning, brand management and communications to her role as Partner.