Professional Services Firms: Me Too is not a Marketing Strategy

February 17, 2010 •

About six months ago, I was invited to meet with a top 10 Washington D.C. law firm to discuss helping the firm address its social media and search engine marketing strategy. I was very excited about the meeting. In my mind, since this law firm was comprised of sophisticated, well-educated and talented people, we’d likely be able to uncover some unique marketing opportunities.

We talked search engine marketing. The firm had never addressed it formally. We talked social media. This area had not been addressed either. We talked website. Built 5 years ago, and the four folks in this meeting had no idea how to change it or who makes changes to it. OK, so this is going to be fun – a green field if you will. That was my mindset.

Well, at least that was my mindset until I asked the following question:

“What is it that makes you guys different from the thousands of other large law firms? What differentiates you from the competition?”

A seemingly innocent, basic marketing question. Actually, it’s not even a marketing question. That’s a business question, one that every single employee in the organization ought to be able to answer.

Someone gave an answer, but all I heard was stumble, bumble, stumble…our partners are world-reknowned…stumble, bumble, stumble….we have 10 offices in the U.S. alone….stumble, bumble, stumble…we’re very well-known in real estate…stumble, bumble, stumble.

Unfortunately, this does not represent a unique scenario in the professional services category. More than any other industry, professional services firms struggle with building a marketing strategy that creates some separation from the pack. Instead, they fall into the “me too” marketing trap over and over and over again.

A lot of professional services firms do look the same from the outside. They offer the same services. Same rates. Same structure. Same types of people. Same tired glossy brochure. There is no easy fix for this problem, however, there are some clear mindset changes your firm can embrace in order to start creating separation:

1) Stop listening to the same 5 – 10 people that every other firm is listening to.

Reputation matters. Connections within an industry matter. Vertical knowledge matters.

You know what else matters? Creative ideas and solutions. Perspectives carried over from other industries. People who challenge you to look at your firm’s identity in a different way than you’ve looked at it for the past 20 – 30 years.

Always look beyond the usual suspects. You may just find some new superheroes that can help you separate from the pack.

2) Dig deep and figure out what makes your firm different, and extend that differentiator – and the associated voice and tone – into every nook and cranny of the organization.

This starts with simple elements like websites, brochures, direct mail and other marketing vehicles and then trickles down into more complex areas like employee training and corporate culture.

To borrow a concept from our friends at The Dashboard Group, find your One Thing and then build everything around it.

3) Embrace the fact that your firm is not meant for every type of customer, employee, partner or stakeholder.

Playing a catch-all game of marketing rarely works, especially for B2B-oriented organizations. In figuring out your differentiator(s), you are also figuring out who and what doesn’t belong. That doesn’t mean your marketing message needs to scream “XXX types of companies need not apply”, but if you execute with precision then people and companies will self-select themselves.

4) Recruit the folks in your firm that are comfortable with “celebrity status” and self-promotion to help you evangelize the message and promote the firm.

Every professional services firm is made up of some very talented and well-known executives or partners. Some are comfortable with heavy self-promotion, some are not. Find the ones that are comfortable with becoming a bit of a celebrity figure, give them the direction and tools to
build that celebrity, and then let them loose.

5) Do try new methods and tactics. Do expect some failures. Do not let anything out the door that you are not comfortable with.

This may seem contradictory – am I saying that you should try new things, but only try those new things when you’re certain they’re perfect? No.

The reason everyone falls back to old methods, tactics and messaging is because it’s easy. Trying the new method, tactic and messaging is hard. It’s hard because it takes more time. It’s hard because it may requires hours of learning before executing. If you allow yourself the time to learn the new “thing”, and spend the time figuring how to execute the new “thing”, chances are you will be comfortable with the new “thing” as it leaves the door.

This is merely a quick list of changes you should consider in your professional services firm. There’s nothing wrong with your firm fitting into a particular category; as a matter of fact being part of a defined category can be very helpful for clients and prospects.

Just don’t count on a Me Too marketing strategy to put you in a leadership position in that category.

About the Author

As managing partner and chief strategy officer for Right Source, Mike Sweeney is responsible for all content marketing initiatives, including growing the company’s content marketing practice, guiding all client content marketing strategy, and recruiting and growing a team of modern marketers. Mike received a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a major in marketing from the University of Notre Dame. You can find Mike on Twitter and Google+, connect with him on LinkedIn, or read his other posts.

  • Wow- this was a really great read, thanks. I am subscribing now- I don’t often find posts that have me reading to the end. Thanks a lot! (@B2BMaven)

  • Ok… so this entry is ancient in social media time but seriously, this is the best damn piece of advice on PSF marketing I’ve read in a while. I’m going to re-tweet as if it’s brand-spanking-new.

    I also work in PSF marketing and think that each one of your observations is right on. Not sure if it has to due with regulatory risk or just a belief that PSF marketing must be boring, wonky, business-speak to be credible, but too few PSFs take risks in their marketing and positioning. Great post! Thanks.

  • Agreed! Certainly, there are companies that successfully outsource their content strategy, creation, and distribution — but without an internal team member taking ownership of the process it frequently stumbles, fails, or just kind of trails off…

    And your point about having to do the work to be a thought leader is dead on. That said, not everyone who publishes content has to be breaking ground with substantive thought leadership (in the form of white papers, books, etc.). Recognizing what works for your firm, what you’re capable of doing, and what you’ll actually follow through and do is key. That’s why I like Joe’s advice not to try to do everything — pick a few pieces of content you can commit to and do well. If it’s just a newsletter, then so be it. But, do it well and consistently.

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your insights.

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