Marketing Failure at Professional Services Firms: Who’s to Blame?

imagesKRCJCX00The Hinge Research Institute – a division of one of the nation’s smartest B2B marketing consultancies – recently published the results of its survey of 530 professional services firms representing accounting and finance; technology; marketing and communications; architecture; engineering and construction; legal; and management consulting disciplines.

In its report, 2015 Professional Services Marketing Priorities, Hinge examined current business challenges and approaches to implementing marketing initiatives at small and medium-sized firms, with annual revenues ranging from less than $5 million to more than $100 million. Owners, partners and principals represented 60% of survey respondents, marketing professionals represented 23%, and the balance were operational or senior level decision-makers at those firms.

Although this was not the intention of this study, or the expressed conclusions of Hinge, the research findings provide insight into why marketing fails to deliver a reasonable return at most professional services firms.

Failure to Connect the Dots

In the Hinge research, here’s how small and medium sized professional services firms ranked their current business challenges:

  • No surprises here. “Attracting and developing new business” (72.1%) is understandably the most significant challenge for any business;
  • However… “Strategy / Planning Issues” (26.8%) are either something professional services firms believe they have under control; are not greatly concerned about; or fail to associate with new business development.

Activity without Purpose or Accountability

The apparent disconnect between strategy / planning and actual marketplace results is reinforced in the marketing initiatives that professional services firms planned for 2015.

According to the Hinge survey, the focus of most professional services firms is on the tactical aspects of marketing, reflected in their plans to:

  • Increase the visibility of their brand (57.9%) and their experts (54.5%)
  • Upgrade their websites (54.9%)
  • Make clients more aware of services (53.5%)
  • Create content marketing programs (47.2%)

Conversely, the strategic aspects of marketing are all at the bottom of the 2015 to-do list for most professional services firms:

  • Develop marketing strategy / plan (45.5%)
  • Find stronger competitive advantage (40.8%)
  • Conduct research on target market (33.8%)
  • Conduct client satisfaction research (22.7%)

It might be argued that strategic marketing tasks did not make the list of 2015 planned initiatives because professional services firms already have those disciplines covered. But our own experience counseling professional services firms over the past 20 years suggests otherwise.

One of the first questions we ask a new or prospective client is this: “Do you have a written marketing plan?” Most often, and consistent with the Hinge study, the answer we receive from them is “No.”

Who’s to blame for unmet expectations in marketing professional services: The senior managers who focus on tactics without a strategic foundation? Or the marketing professionals who should know better?

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B2B Conferences: Essential Marketing Tactic…or Waste of Time and Money?

Regardless of industry, B2B conferences and seminars can be a significant waste of time, money and opportunity. But the conference sponsor is typically not at fault for the lack of return on this marketing investment. It’s often the result of poor planning, lack of creativity, laziness or unrealistic expectations by the companies that participate in them.

Here are three issues you should address, in advance of investing in a conference of any kind:

Do I understand the inherent marketing value of conferences? Before it became a “pay to play” world, there was some brand stature and inherent 3rd party endorsement associated with participation as a keynote speaker or panelist on a conference agenda. Nowadays, however, even if you’re invited to speak, attendees will likely assume that you’ve paid for the privilege, so the brand cachet is diminished.

The real marketing value of participation in any conference agenda is not based on what you say to the 100 attendees during your 15 minutes on the podium. Instead, it’s based on what you do, both before and after the conference, to reach, influence and engage the 1,000+ or 2,000+ decision-makers who were either too busy or too important to attend the event. In many respects, a conference simply provides a legitimate reason to communicate with those individuals who are most important you.

Do I have the internal discipline to make conferences a worthwhile investment? Because conferences are expensive, inefficient, haphazard and difficult to evaluate, you must establish an internal discipline and specific strategies to harness their marketing value. For starters, you need access to a robust, accurate database of your clients, prospects and referral sources. Possessing a list of conference attendees, either before or after the conference, is of lesser importance.

You also need to create a detailed communications strategy – tailored for each event – that addresses how you intend to:

  • Share intellectual capital associated with the event (either generated by you or someone else), and how to
  • Leverage that intellectual capital to drive engagement with your target audiences either before and / or after the conference.

For example, if you’ve given a conference presentation, you can send highlights of your remarks to your database shortly after the event, and offer to send them your complete remarks or PowerPoint slides. Or you can convert your presentation into a bylined article for publication in an appropriate business or trade journal, and then send target audiences the published piece along with a personalized cover note.

If you’re not on the podium, you’ll need to be more creative. For example, you might send your target audiences a “Sorry I missed you…” communication that provides your insights on the conference’s highlights, or expresses a contrarian viewpoint related to its underlying theme. Or you might even consider hi-jacking the conference agenda, by inviting high-value targets to a roundtable discussion / reception at a very exclusive venue near the event. (Conference sponsors do their best to prevent this type of guerilla marketing.)

In all cases, the strategic goal is to amortize the time and money you’ve invested in the conference, in order to reach a wider and sometimes more appropriate audience. By using the conference credibility (or its related topic / theme) to showcase your intellectual capital, drive top-of-mind awareness and foster direct engagement, you’ll have a much greater likelihood of yielding a connection between the event and tangible business metrics, including new client engagements and revenue growth.

Are my expectations for this conference realistic? Sometimes lightning actually does strike: you’ll make a connection at a conference that eventually leads to new business. But most of the time, putting your company’s logo on a lanyard, participating in a panel discussion, or sponsoring a mid-morning coffee break will lead to absolutely nothing. If there were a consistent direct connection between conference participation and business growth, there would be a very long waiting list for sponsorships.

If you understand that conferences will always be a low percentage marketing strategy, then you have a clear choice. You can either:

  1. Avoid conferences altogether, by hosting your own private events or programs.
  2. Leverage your participation to showcase intellectual capital with a wider audience.
  3. Simply enjoy the camaraderie, the golf / tennis / beach, and the nightlife…and hope for the best. In short, conference participation is similar to all other marketing-related tactics. Smart, focused and strategic will always produce better outcomes than “one-size-fits-all” solutions.

In short, conference participation is similar to all other marketing-related tactics. Smart, focused and strategic will always produce better outcomes than “one-size-fits-all” solutions.

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A Few Marketing Best Practices for Alternative Investments

Although the lion’s share of alternative funds have yet to dip their toes into Lake Transparency, some small funds are cutting a path for the rest of the industry, in terms of smart marketing…if that’s defined by how clearly they explain their value proposition, and by how well they create investor interest.

Although it doesn’t provide a complete picture, very often you can gauge a fund’s marketing savvy by its website, which in our online world serves as the mother ship for a company’s brand.

So based solely on their websites, here are two small funds that can serve as examples of marketing best practices:

  • Monterey, California-based Topturn Capital – a single, low volatility hedge fund, and
  • Lake Forest, Illinois-based SilverPepper – a liquid alt firm offering two sub-advised funds

And here’s why these two firms are exceptional:

  • Both funds demonstrate that small firms can market themselves very effectively. In fact, smaller funds have a marketing advantage over larger competitors. Fewer people often can mean less politics, a more flexible compliance viewpoint and fewer opinions from the peanut gallery, which serve to dilute core messaging and can kill great ideas.
  • Both funds tell engaging, believable stories about themselves. Their stories explain their investment philosophy and commitment to their business in very human terms, directly related to their own life experiences. They don’t pontificate; they connect with people.
  • Both funds use video to tell their stories. Seeing and hearing fund principals makes those individuals and their firms credible and likeable. This visceral connection is critical in a business where “management” is consistently cited as a leading factor in fund selection.
  • Both funds display thought leadership. Their intellectual capital is showcased, but not in a self-serving manner. Topturn Capital, in particular, succeeds in maintaining market interest and increasing its credibility through well-written blog posts on topics ranging from Ebola to the market impact of presidential cycles.
  • Both funds understand the importance of brand strategy. All of the website elements – content, messaging, design, navigation – support a well thought-out effort to differentiate their firm’s value proposition, and to make it memorable. These are not cookie-cutter marketing solutions; and they reflects pride, creativity and skin in the game.

Admittedly, the SilverPepper website pushes the marketing envelope, in terms of what’s acceptable to most hedge fund compliance officers. But here’s what’s significant about the emergence of liquid alt firms like SilverPepper: because of their retail orientation and facility with sophisticated marketing tactics, that emerging asset class will indirectly drive hedge funds to show greater courage and creativity in marketing in the years ahead.

For most hedge funds, whether they emulate Topturn Capital or SilverPepper, the adoption of marketing best practices – or any marketing practices at all – is long overdue.

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This article appears as the March edition of “Marketing Alternatives,” a monthly column published in the Barclay Insider Report, a newsletter produced byBarclayHedge, a leading provider of alternative fund data.

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Why Your B2B Marketing Isn’t Working

Inconsistency Kills Most B2B Marketing Strategies

Inconsistency Kills Most B2B Marketing Strategies

There are two major reasons why marketing is ineffective at B2B firms, regardless of size or industry:

  1. Marketing is viewed as triage. The company applies a collection of tactics (often labeled as a “marketing campaign”) only in response to a problem; typically involving the loss of a key client, or decline in revenue. When business is good, little or no time is invested in marketing. When business (inevitably) takes a dip, marketing becomes a priority. This classic behavior is depicted in the “Sales / Service Volatility Curve” chart above.
  2. Marketing is expected to deliver immediate results. Either because the company views marketing on a cause & effect tactical basis, or because marketing triage must quickly revive an ailing company, the marketing function is given little time to produce tangible results. It’s no surprise that Chief Marketing Officers have the shortest tenure of any corporate function.

Individually or collectively, both of these circumstances drive the #1 reason why B2B marketing does not work:

INCONSISTENCY

The sad truth is that very few B2B firms either understand the marketing function, or have the discipline to design, implement, measure and stick with a marketing approach that builds brand equity and market engagement on a consistent basis.

As an alternative to changing careers, and to establish the infrastructure and internal culture necessary for the discipline to succeed, we offer marketers (and B2B business owners) the following simple path:

  • Create a Written Marketing Plan. Include goals, strategies, responsibilities, timelines, budgets and ways to measure results. Without a Marketing Plan you will not succeed. And unless it’s a written document, you do not have a Marketing Plan.
  • Gain Senior Level Commitment. The corner office must understand, endorse and support the Marketing Plan. The Plan must also be properly staffed and funded upfront.
  • Do a Few Things Very Well. Marketing’s success will be based on the quality and effectiveness of a limited number of strategies / tactics. Less is usually more.
  • Build and Nurture your Database. Direct and easy access to your company’s clients, prospects, referral sources and opinion leaders is essential. Without this pipeline, the marketing value of the content you create is close to zero.
  • Create Meaningful Content. Self-serving white papers and client case studies have very limited appeal. Generate content that validates your company’s intellectual capital, on topics that target audiences have a genuine interest in.
  • Drive Top-of-Mind Awareness. Leverage your thought leadership content by sharing it directly with target audiences on at least a quarterly basis. More importantly, use content to initiate two-way conversations that build relationships in advance of sales.
  • Connect with the Sales Force. There’s no better way to find if and how well your marketing strategies are working, or to gain an understanding of the marketplace.

Most importantly – with apologies to Glengarry Glen Ross – B2B firms must:

A…..Always

B…..Be

M…..Marketing

…for the discipline to be effective. Otherwise, the traditional short-term, hair-on-fire approach to marketing will keep your B2B firm from ever reaching its full potential.

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The Road to Hedge Fund Transparency: Marketing Essentials and Potential Pitfalls

To survive and prosper in a marketplace where transparency and trust are now valued by investors and promoted by regulators, hedge funds will be increasingly required to build a rational and risk-averse approach to external communication. Ideally, those plans will also avoid many of the non-productive tactics that marketers are known to promote.

Here’s a marketing roadmap designed to achieve that objective:

Build your brand strategy first. This internal discipline yields a unified view and clear expression of what your firm seeks to achieve for investors, how it addresses that goal, what makes it uniquely qualified for consideration, and why investors should select and trust your firm. An upfront articulation of the firm’s value proposition serves as the cornerstone of a written marketing plan that should include: tangible business goals, appropriate marketing strategies and tactics, calendarized activity, budgets and accountabilities. Any firm that operates without a formal plan (which should be simple, and not take months to create), eventually becomes a victim of “trust me it’s working” marketing. No plan = lots of wheel-spinning + no tangible business outcomes.

Create a bona fide website, not a proxy. In an online world, websites are the mother ship of market transparency. If a hedge fund is unwilling to provide on its website essential information related to its capabilities and credibility, then the firm is not really serious about market communication. Ideally, your website should express institutional values, explain investment processes, showcase human capital, provide examples of thought leadership and include inherent 3rd party endorsements. It’s not a sales pitch or report card. Your website will generate investor interest by allowing visitors to draw their own conclusions about the firm and its potential to help them achieve their goals.

Leverage your firm’s intellectual capital. Thought leadership – which is overused marketing jargon – is a strategy that leverages knowledge and ideas to engage target audiences. Effective thought leadership can involve a broad range of marketing tactics, but should always be designed to achieve measurable goals; not to simply have people think you’re smart. A hedge fund’s intellectual capital represents its most powerful market differentiator, and can be showcased without giving away any proprietary information or methodologies.

Harness the market reach of LinkedIn. LinkedIn has become an important due diligence tool for investors, intermediaries and the financial press. Most hedge funds understand this, and either provide a very basic firm profile, and / or allow its employees to post their personal profiles on LinkedIn. But to harness LinkedIn’s enormous market reach and professional clientele, hedge funds must establish a buttoned-up institutional persona that’s consistent with the firm’s (bona fide) website; ensure that its employees’ profiles enhance the firm’s brand positioning; and take full advantage of appropriate user groups on LinkedIn to raise brand visibility and display its thought leadership. 

Hold off on Twitter and other social media sites. Twitter can be a great information source, and most hedge funds should use it exclusively for that purpose: to listen rather than to speak. Few hedge funds have the time or social media sophistication to engage safely and consistently on Twitter, and the compliance risks are significant. Facebook is simply not an appropriate channel for hedge funds, and posting comments on independent blogs or online publications will not yield meaningful results.

Manage press exposure selectively. Beneficial media exposure can provide valuable brand credibility. But this is a high-risk tactic because reporters have agendas, can make mistakes, and are not in business to make your firm look good. However, hedge funds should proactively seek media exposure through participation in targeted editorial opportunities – such as bylined articles, OpEd pieces and certain types of feature articles – if they provide total or nearly complete control over what’s published. Although guest spots on financial news channels such as CNBC can fuel the ego, these are high-risk opportunities that most hedge funds should avoid.

Unfortunately, most media coverage yields no marketing value, because it’s simply hung like a hunting trophy on a firm’s website. To benefit from the implied 3rd party endorsement, beneficial coverage must be properly integrated into the firm’s direct communication strategy with clients, prospects and referral sources.

Merchandise conference participation. Investor conferences are high-cost tactics that can be effective for hedge funds. But these events also yield low results because firms fail to properly re-purpose the related thought leadership they’ve produced; which can serve as raw material to influence target audiences that are much larger, and sometimes of higher value, than those in attendance at the conference. Doing all the heavy lifting (in terms of content preparation, travel, time away from office and home), but failing to benefit from that investment – both before or after the event itself – represents a tangible opportunity loss.

Forget advertising for now, and perhaps forever. Regulators have not made it easy for hedge funds to understand the rules of the new advertising game, so the industry is better off encouraging the very large players – with deep compliance muscle – to be the first ones on the field. But there are more significant reasons why most hedge funds should never include advertising in their marketing plans. Notably, institutional advertising is expensive, requires a long-term commitment to be effective, and is very difficult to measure or generate a market response. More importantly, at most hedge funds there is an extensive list of marketing strategies and tactics (for example, building an effective website) that should be addressed first, and that will provide a more meaningful return than advertising.

As market dynamics of the investment world drag hedge funds, however reluctantly, into the new era of transparency, there is some good news for those firms. Hedge funds have long demonstrated their ability to sustain a successful business enterprise without traditional marketing tactics. So any benefits that effective market communication might provide for them are very likely to result in incremental asset growth.

Additionally, because hedge funds do not currently depend on marketing for survival, they can act in a deliberate, strategic manner. Hedge funds have the luxury of being able to design and implement their marketing programs incrementally, and to focus on doing a limited number of things very well.

In that regard, other vertical industries may eventually point to hedge funds as examples of best practices in branding and marketing. But at the current rate of change, that’s unlikely to occur in our lifetimes.

 

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Why and How to Market Your Firm’s Brand Integrity

As the limitations of a virtual marketplace continue to reduce most B2B firms to commodities, it’s become increasingly important to communicate not just what your company does, but to generate interest in what your enterprise stands for. This task of expressing your firm’s raison d’être involves far more than sticking a “Mission Statement” on its website.

Prospective clients not only want to know what makes your firm unique; before they put you on their short list for consideration, they also want assurance that your company is a “safe choice.” Decision-makers at every level are unwilling to risk their career on selection of an outside firm that may fail to meet expectations, or even harm their firm.

Regardless of whether your firm is the leader or an upstart in its marketplace, brand integrity matters. And it’s a corporate asset that needs to be marketed.

Unfortunately, telling target audiences and opinion leaders that your company is smart, honest, unique, innovative, creative, cutting-edge, trusted, etc. never succeeds. People require hard and soft evidence to support their own conclusions about your brand attributes, notably its integrity.

So how does a B2B firm market its brand integrity through online and offline channels? Here are 10 tangible and intangible factors that, on an individual and combined basis, can drive marketplace opinion on brand integrity:

  • Transparency: Is information regarding your firm’s philosophy, products / services, processes and people available and easily accessible? (Acid Test: How much digging is required to gain a basic understanding?)
  • Consistency: Is all information kept up-to-date, and relevant to current market conditions? Does bad news get communicated to your clients as quickly and openly as good news? (Acid Test: What’s the frequency of content generation, and the number of direct and indirect “touches” with target audiences?)
  • Enthusiasm: Does your firm appear genuine and enthusiastic about communicating with external audiences? Or does communication appear to be treated as a necessary evil? (Acid Test: How often are innovation and fun baked into those efforts?)
  • Values: Are your company’s core values expressed in a compelling manner? More importantly, are those values demonstrated through its actions? (Acid Test: Are they aspirational and inspirational? Is there tangible evidence that values really drive decision-making?)
  • Clarity: Are explanations clear, devoid of technical jargon or mystery, and easily understood by all outside audiences? (Acid Test: Would an 8th grader get it?)
  • Culture: Is there a visible common culture, beyond shared academic credentials or charitable activities? Are there tangible signs that employees are valued, have a unified vision and enjoy working together? (Acid Test: Other than the annual mud run photo, do employees appear to be engaged as a team?)
  • Associations: Who and what are the people, organizations, ideas and causes associated with your firm? Are those associations respected, credible and trustworthy? (Acid Test: Is the firm actively connected with the outside world?)
  • Validation: How is your firm’s value proposition validated by objective 3rd parties? Do reliable sources express open support or inherent endorsement? (Acid Test: Do credible media sources cover the company? Do clients identify themselves by name and company?)
  • Leadership: Are efforts made to share / promote your firm’s intellectual capital in a helpful manner that’s not directly self-serving? (Acid Test: Do other opinion leaders reference your firm’s ideas or contributions? Are white papers just poorly disguised sales collateral?)
  • Persona: Does your firm appear to be run by interesting human beings, or hide its personality behind an opaque, institutional veneer? (Acid Test: Does the overall impact of public-facing communication project warmth and sincerity, or distance and arrogance?)

Marketing tactics aside, companies looking for a guiding principle on brand integrity are well-served by heeding the advice of the late John Wooden, basketball coaching legend, who said, “Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation. Your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

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Research Integrity: The Achilles Heel of Content Marketing

The marketing profession has a reputation for sometimes using less than reliable market research to promote a point of view. And this marketer has been guilty of that sin.

Years ago, our insurance company client was introducing a new Directors & Officers liability insurance policy, and asked us to raise market awareness. With good intentions, but given no budget or time to perform proper market research, we interviewed a total of 6 corporate CEOs and board members to provide some validation to the underlying premise of our press release. The headline read: “Most Corporate Directors & Officers Believe They Are Not Protected Properly from Legal Risk.”

With very little expectation that a premise based on such shoddy research would qualify for exposure in the financial press, and dreading inquiries from journalists asking about our research methodology, the release went out. To our great surprise, we received no calls from reporters checking the facts, and the story was immediately picked up by two major wire services, and appeared as a news squib on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, followed by coverage in several business insurance trade publications.

Our client was overjoyed with the media exposure, but we felt less than honorable, and resolved that we would never use market research to promote a client’s product or service unless we believed the supporting methodology had sufficient rigor. And over the years we’ve lost work as a result.

Research integrity was an issue long before the internet became the platform for content marketing. Most often, your research-based news items would not be covered by respected media sources unless you ran the credibility gauntlet. Editors demanded your research methods and data, and had to be convinced that your study was objective and legitimate. Our very thin D&O liability research was a rare and risky exception…and perhaps a sign of things to come.

For well understood reasons, the “legitimate press” now has neither the manpower nor the time to dig deeply for validation of market research that supports content generated by organizations. The loss of this important filter, coupled with the explosion of online content, has created a marketing world in which sloppy, incomplete (and sometimes blatantly false) research generates news items that can go viral and become accepted wisdom. Pumping out content in volume has become far more important than creating high quality content that could withstand the scrutiny of a hard-nosed editor.

What this new world of content marketing means for individuals is simple: assume that all “research-based” information requires close scrutiny. Believe nothing at face value. If it’s important to your business strategy, or you intend to adopt the research to support your own point of view (or upcoming PowerPoint presentation), then you’ll need to become the hard-nosed editor who scrutinizes the original source; who looks at the sample size, respondents, questions asked, etc.; and who determines whether the research results legitimately support the conclusions.

What this new world of content integrity means to companies is more complex: assume that the “research-based” content that you produce is a reflection of your brand’s integrity. For the Marketing Department, this involves educating the corner office regarding the rigor, time and costs involved in market studies, surveys, research necessary to yield content worthy of customer-facing applications. For the corner office, this involves calculating whether the intended marketplace outcome is worth the necessary investment, and avoiding shortcuts.

Without the 4th Estate as the content gatekeeper, there is now far greater opportunity for companies to benefit from content marketing. And by not adopting the market research integrity standards that journalists long upheld, there are far more ways for companies to damage their brand through content marketing.

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