From Digital Brochure to Online Lead Generator: Powering Up the Professional Services Website

By Robert Buday and Tim Parker

The vast majority of websites of consulting, law, accounting, IT service and otherchart professional services firms are essentially digital brochures – static online publications that don’t let prospects easily understand their deep expertise. But by organizing their website by the client problems they solve and demonstrating their deep expertise for solving them, a number of professional services firms have been using the Web to accelerate their lead streams.

Websites and other online marketing activities have become serious business for professional services firms – major investments in putting the right online public face on companies that have become increasingly indistinguishable from one another. We’ve heard of consultancies, law firms, training companies, accounting firms and other expertise providers spending upwards of $100,000 for updating and refreshing websites. And that’s only for the Web designers and technology developers. Add in fees for external copywriters, artists, photographers and internal help – especially the unaccounted time of firm partners and other professionals – and the spending can grow larger than for any other marketing activity.

In fact, professional services firms spent 15% of their marketing budgets on websites and other online marketing activities in 2005, according to a Forrester Research study. That was their second-biggest budget item, trailing only in-person marketing events, which consumed 26% of their marketing budgets.1 (See below Exhibit 1: Online Marketing in Professional Services.) As a marketer at one of the world’s largest consulting firms told us, “The Web has become an absolutely critical piece of our marketing.”

The investments are for a worthy cause. The buyers of professional services – business executives – more than ever go to the Web to gather information on suppliers, including providers of expertise. A 2002 survey of 286 senior executives on behalf of Forbes magazine found that they spent twice as much time on the Web (16 hours a week) than on the next leading media (8.6 hours a week on TV). These executives get more of their news today from online news sites than they do from newspapers, magazines, TV or radio.2

Increasingly, prospective clients find out about professional services firms through their websites. If that introduction is weak, the website may be a prospect’s last interaction with the firm. And all companies – professional services and others – don’t have much time to make a favorable introduction. A new study by a Canadian university found that Internet users make up their minds about the quality of a website in the first 50 milliseconds of viewing its home page.3

Exhibit 1: Online Marketing in Professional Services (Forrester Research data)
Marketing Tactic and % of 2005 Marketing Budget for
Professional Services Firms [N=56]

 

Thoughts on Thought Leadership -- The Bloom Group

And therein lies a big problem and major opportunity for professional services firms – at least for the clear majority of the 80 websites we studied between November 2005 and January 2006. Most were not organized to help prospects quickly determine a) whether the firm has the specific expertise they are looking for and b) how to get in touch with the people in the firm who can further diagnose the problem and discuss how the firm could solve it. Most websites we studied suffered three major flaws:

  • They were designed from the "firm-out" rather than the "client-in"—that is, they used their home page to introduce themselves to prospective clients by listing the services they provided – not by articulating the problems or issues those prospects come to them with. Professional services marketers do recognize the importance of articulating the business problems they address, according to an online survey of 36 professional services firms that we conducted in January. In fact, they rated it more important than any other type of information that should be on their website other than contact information. (See below Exhibit 2.) But on average, they rated the quality of their information on the business problems they addressed only slightly better than satisfactory. They gave themselves better marks on how they described their practices (industry, functional, etc.). (See below Exhibit 3.) Our own evaluations of how well professional services home pages articulated the business issues their firms addressed were even less favorable. On a scale of 0 to 5 (with a 5 going to professional services firm websites that clearly described on their home page the business problems they solved), the average score was a poor 1.8. Law and accounting firms were especially poor at describing the issues they advised on, while consulting and IT service companies were better at it – although still mediocre.
  • They made the viewer a passive receiver of disorganized information rather than an active searcher of information organized to show the firm’s deep expertise in solving the prospect’s problem. Pages full of links may have led to useful information on each service line. However, those service lines typically lacked descriptions of each type of content (e.g., client case studies, articles, events, methods and approaches, etc.), making it difficult for viewers to determine what they were looking at.
Exhibit 2: What Information Professional Services Firms
Rate as Most Important on Their Websites (N=36)

 

Thoughts on Thought Leadership -- The Bloom Group

  • They were designed as if the Web were merely an electronic brochure providing static information, rather than an interactive tool that could not only create awareness of the firm’s expertise but get prospects to accelerate their buying decisions by going to marketing events (seminars, conferences, etc.) and/or scheduling one-on-one discussions. Seen in this light, it is perhaps no surprise that the 36 professional services firms that participated in our online survey on average gave their websites mediocre grades for their ability to generate leads for their service lines. (See below Exhibit 4.)

In contrast, the best professional services websites that we studied were just the opposite – great informers of their firm’s expertise with interactive tools that accelerated their marketing and sales process. These firms, which include consultancies Boston Consulting Group and Watson Wyatt, and accounting firms Deloitte and Eide Bailly, had far better-organized and better-written websites.

Exhibit 3: How Professional Services Firms Rate the
Quality of the Information on Their Websites (N=36)

Thoughts on Thought Leadership -- The Bloom Group

In this article, we offer a much different way of organizing the content of a professional services website. It is based upon the concept of starting with your clients’ problems – in the terms they use to describe them – rather than your services and the nomenclature you use to explain them. It then requires organizing your content – especially your intellectual capital in the form of articles, books, events, white papers, studies, presentations and the like – by client business problem/firm service offering, not just by the usual categories for defining that marketing information (news, white papers, books, etc.).

We call it organizing your website from your client-in, rather than from your firm-out. We explain why this is a superior way for professional services firms to organize their websites and show how a number of them are doing so.

Exhibit 4: How Well Professional Services Websites
Inform and Generate Business (N=36)

 

Thoughts on Thought Leadership -- The Bloom Group

 

The Age of Shopping for Professional Advice on the Web

When one thinks of industries transformed by the Internet, professional services doesn’t exactly come to mind. Retailing (books, music, auctions), travel, and, increasingly, news go to the top of the list. All are industries in which the product itself or the purchase of the product is far more convenient on the Web. Yet, curiously, the Web provides a significant opportunity for professional services firms to generate demand for their services, for four reasons:

  • The Web is a superior tool for locating expertise. The Web provides an unparalleled tool for finding expertise from around the world. Before the Web, buyers of legal, consulting and other services had relatively primitive tools for locating that expertise – the experiences of other firms (word of mouth), reference guides (expensive and often outdated), and conferences and publications (which were run or published periodically). Finding such firms would take days or even weeks. (One study put the average cost of finding a consulting firm at $63,000.4) Now it takes seconds or minutes. The Internet allows buyers of expertise to quickly find dozens (or sometimes hundreds) of professional services firms. The Web and search engines such as Google make it nearly effortless for company managers to locate specific expertise from around the world. The result: The effort and cost in finding experts have been dramatically reduced.
  • The Web can help buyers determine what expertise they need. The interactivity of the Web makes it a superior medium for buyers of professional services who need help in defining what expertise they need. It’s relatively easy for buyers of many products and services to verbalize what they’re looking for. But not professional services. Because of the intangibility of professional services expertise, one of the biggest difficulties in identifying who can help you is the ability to express your problem in the same terms as the professional experts who can solve it. Short of having an expert translating your problem into his expertise, the Web is superior to print publications for explaining things. For example, a Web page can link words that may not be generally understood to definitions and examples. Readers who understand the terms won’t be offended by having to read the definitions since they only appear when someone clicks on a link.
  • The Web lets buyers more effectively sample the expertise of professional services. Buyers of professional services can “sample” their products on the Web. A buyer of legal, consulting, accounting or other professional services can get a glimpse of a firm’s expertise by reading its articles, white papers, presentations and other writings on their website. Given that professional services firms are in the business of providing expertise and that expertise is delivered in words through people, the written word is “in fact” part of the product of a professional services firm. (See “Why Great Writing Matters to Professional Services Firms”).
  • The Web delivers prospects at their time of need. An executive hearing your firm present at a conference most often will not have an immediate need for your services. However, when that same executive, or his staff, visit your website, it is precisely because they have a need for your services. Prospects visit professional services websites when they need expertise. Professional services firms must capture the interest of that prospect and move them forward to consider their capabilities more seriously.

Yet our survey of 36 professional services firms and our reviews of websites of 80 of the largest professional services firms (consultancies, IT service companies, law firms and accounting firms) show that the distinct minority have well-organized websites. In most cases, the websites we evaluated made it hard for buyers of professional services to quickly find the expertise they needed, understand the depth and efficacy of a firm’s expertise, and begin a dialogue with the experts about their business problem.

The 36 professional services firms that took our online survey expressed similar dissatisfaction with their sites as lead-generators. Only 16% said their websites were very good at generating client leads for their service lines; 37% said their sites were unsatisfactory at spawning new business.

Most websites were organized in a way that reflected how the professional services firm did business. Their home page promoted sections devoted to office locations, members of the management team, media, white papers, and so on. Their websites were not structured in a way that made it easy for clients to do business with them – that is, a website organized by the business problems that they solved for clients and the expertise and experience they bring to bear on those problems. The result: Many visitors, prospects with an immediate need, “bounced off” the site after not being able to quickly determine whether the professional services firm could solve their problem. Nothing on the home page helped these visitors determine whether the firm had the expertise they were looking for – or how to find it. (See Exhibit 5: How Professional Services Websites Should Be Organized). Thus, the potential prospect is off to find another services firm and add it to their short list.

Exhibit 5: How Professional Services Website Should be Organized

 

Thoughts on Thought Leadership -- The Bloom Group

We believe the Web will become – if it hasn’t already – the primary place in which business people look for professional services firms. But professional services firms that want to capture prospects on the Web must organize their sites in a manner that is most useful to what businesspeople need when they look for expertise. The organizing theme should be the business problems a consulting, law, accounting or other professional services firm addresses – not the professional services firm’s offices, services, people and other information.

What the future has in store for professional services websites can be seen in consumer websites that provide expertise, such as medical information sites like WebMD.com. In 2004, half of all American adults (95 million people 18 and over) used the Internet to find health information, with the largest percentage (66%) looking for information on a specific disease than any other type of health information (e.g., diet information, exercise routines, etc.).5

The professional services’ equivalent of “specific diseases” is specific business problems – e.g., declining company morale, eroding sales, intellectual property infringements, foreign tax problems, ineffective marketing, inefficient supply chains, whatever the business problem(s) the firm addresses.

Most professional services’ websites seem to reflect the belief that the Web is buyers’ last resort when looking for an expert – an electronic “leave-behind” brochure that a prospect can review after he has talked to the firm about his company’s business problems and wants more information. This flies in the face of recent studies about Web viewership. It appears that the Web increasingly is the first place that buyers of professional services visit when looking for experts – not the last.

Turning a Website Into a Lead-Generating Machine

So how can professional services firms turn their websites into a marketing tool that generates numerous quality leads? How can they dramatically increase the number of qualified prospects who ask for a meeting after visiting their site – prospects who by the time of the meeting are convinced the professional services firm has appropriate and superior expertise but need to see whether there’s a personal fit as well? By designing their websites from the client-in – i.e., using the home page first to communicate the core issues they solve for target clients, not the “firm-out,” meaning, their services, offices, articles, people and so on. That content will be useful in explaining how the firm solves each client issue. It also requires designing interactivity into the site – increasing prospects’ interest in the firm by getting them to begin a dialogue (online and offline) with the firm’s experts.

A “client-in” approach to the design of a professional services website requires organizing its content in the following manner:

  1. “Introduction” – Content that enables the prospect to determine whether the firm can solve his issue. This must answer the prospect’s question: Do you solve my particular problem?
  2. “Education” – Content that demonstrates the firm has superior expertise for solving the prospect’s issue. This must answer the prospect’s question of: Are you good at solving that problem?
  3. “Connection” – Content that enables the prospect to interact with the specific people in the firm who have the expertise he is looking for (to get more information on how the firm would help him with his particular problem). This must answer the prospect’s question: Who in your firm would solve the problem in my company and how would they do so?

In the sections that follow, we’ll discuss each principle and provide leading examples from our research.

1. Introducing Your Firm With Your Client's Issues, Not Your Services

Introducing the firm effectively requires starting with your prospects’ issues (and how they describe them) – not with your firm’s slogans, service mix, latest book or seminar or other content that may not directly communicate the issues you address. It demands devoting most of the “real estate” on the home page to the core issues or problems your firm solves. Why is this critical? As we mentioned earlier in this article, prospects using the Internet to find expertise know they typically will find dozens of professional services from which to choose on the Web. If your site doesn’t quickly communicate that you address the prospect’s specific issue, he’ll quickly click to the next page.

Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a $1.1 billion HR and financial management consulting firm, provides a tab on its home page titled “business issues,” a pull-down menu then cascades into four areas: cost of employment, globalization, governance and risk management, and productivity. Clicking on each leads to pages with more detailed information on the business issues – the client problems – that Watson Wyatt addresses (and the services with which it addresses them).

In contrast, the home page of one large strategy consulting firm (Roland Berger Strategy Consultants) is not specific about the problems it solves (www.rolandberger.com). It simply proclaims “Strategies that work!” This isn’t very useful for a prospect who has a particular strategy problem – for example, slow organic growth or the need to identify new markets and product opportunities.

2. Education: Demonstrating to Prospects Your Expertise and Experience in Solving Their Specific Problem

After introducing yourself to your target clients by articulating the problems you solve and your services that solve them, professional services websites must “educate” prospects. This is about demonstrating that your firm has superior expertise on the issues you solve and the client work that backs up your assertions.

How do you demonstrate superior expertise? This is where posting articles, excerpts of books that your practice leaders have written, press articles in which they’ve been quoted, research studies they have authored, presentations they’ve delivered in public forums, and other packaged forms of intellectual capital come into play. In the Web pages of the polling and consulting firm, Gallup, the firm provides links to articles and seminars related to each service offering.

Most of the professional services websites we reviewed did not organize their expertise by service line. For example, in each of their service sections the average professional services website made it hard to find specific information from their email newsletters, books, research reports, press quotes, conference presentations and other content. (Their average grade was less than 1 on our scale of 0 to 5.) More often, firms posted articles within their service line pages, although even here the practice wasn’t ubiquitous (receiving a 2.3 on our scale).

Instead, professional services firms more often organize their content in sections called “thought leadership,” “publications,” “events,” and so on. We agree with the need for such sections. However, that doesn’t mean that the same articles or events that are listed in sections devoted to publications and events can’t also be listed under the appropriate service offering page. One of the advantages of a website is that information can present multiple times in multiple places at no additional cost and add value to the reader each time.

A number of professional services firms did organize their content by service line, yet that content was often disorganized. It was hard to tell whether a link was an article, a client case study, a description of an approach or tool used in the service, and so on. In each service or practice area the related marketing information, such as client success stories, events, press coverage, and the like should be displayed. By displaying these proof points in their proper service area, the reader has a much better chance of understanding all of the information. Prospects are trying to collect a large amount of information on the firm and they don’t have the patience to explore many sections on the site to find the content they need.

The consulting section of pollster Gallup was one of the best that we found at providing rich information related to each of its consulting services – on the appropriate service page. For example, clicking on the firm’s “customer engagement” practice (one of 12 under “management” practices) leads to a page with deep information on the practice. The copy also has links to practice tools. Near the bottom of the copy that describes the practice, Gallup provides a link (by clicking the word “successes”) to its client work specific to this particular practice. The client case studies are extensive. The customer engagement practice alone had 15 client case studies.

A description of one client project (“Financial Services Company: Employee and Customer Engagement”) provides detailed and eye-opening information on results Gallup claims to have delivered: a 24% increase in the number of “engaged” employees, a 19% decrease in employees who felt disconnected from their work, and a $6 million increase in annual profits for business units that increased employee engagement. Rounding out this extensive information on each practice, Gallup provides white papers and promotes seminars related to its practice on each practice page. A click on these “learning events” leads to a calendar with links that let people register online.

Similarly, the Boston Consulting Group does a good job in organizing and displaying the depth of its expertise. On its home page, the firm displays a section (“our expertise”) that lists 23 practices, some industries, some functions, other topics (e.g., deconstruction, branding, intellectual property). A click on a practice link provides general information on the practice and a main contact (phone number and email address). The practice page also has links to BCG-written articles and studies, as well as other professionals in the practice. In turn, for each professional, BCG provides a color photograph of the individual, bullet points on their areas of expertise, a paragraph or two on the work experience and education, which BCG office they work out of, and a phone number and email address (although the latter only appears after clicking on the professional’s name).

The website of Phoenix-based accounting firm Eide Bailly LLP is also well-organized by service line. For example, within each of the firm’s three core service lines (accounting, audit and tax), website visitors can see specific offerings, articles, and biographies of professionals.

Visitors of professional services websites that provide little detailed information by service line have a limited ability to see the firm’s depth of expertise and experience. Remember, the viewer of a website is typically coming to you with one specific problem or issue in mind – not dozens of issues. Therefore, he or she is only interested in the expertise, client experiences, and other content you have on his specific issue.

Most of the professional services websites that we reviewed were not very persuasive. Because of the paucity of articles, books and other demonstrations of their expertise, few gave us the confidence that their expertise was deep. And given that few had a large number of case studies of their client work – and even fewer mentioned clients by name – we didn’t see much proof of efficacy behind their brand positioning statements. Even those with case studies were typically spare with information on the financial and operating results they generated for clients.

3. Connection: Hooking Up Your Prospect to the People Who Can Solve His Problem

After a prospect with a very specific problem has quickly found that your firm addresses that problem (“introduce”) and has superior expertise and client experience in solving it (“educate”), he or she must be given a way to reach out to the people in your firm who can begin a discussion about how you could solve the issue in his organization. We refer to this function of a website as “connection.”

Most of the professional services websites that we evaluated were poor in connecting prospects to their experts – or often even to a business developer. On our scale of 0 to 5, the average professional services firm received a grade of 2.1 in letting visitors get directly in touch with a professional in their area of interest. One of the professional services firms that excelled at connecting prospects to their experts was Huron Consulting Group Inc., a Chicago-based financial and operational consulting firm. A $200 million publicly held firm, Huron gives Web viewers extensive information on many of its key consultants, who are listed within the firm’s services. It also provides a picture of each consultant, and his direct phone number, fax number, email and “land mail” address. Visitors can also download an expert’s “vCard”, which puts the consultant’s business card information into the viewer’s Microsoft Outlook office software package.

Now contrast that with a prospect who goes to the website of strategy and operations consultant A.T. Kearney. Clicking on “services” of the firm brings the viewer to a page listing eight services. A click on one service line – “strategy consulting” – summons a page on this service (and sub-service categories). At the bottom of the page is a contact button to click. That page lets the viewer provide his name, organization, phone and email, along with the ability to select one of five strategy-related topics he would like to discuss with the firm (as well as an open-ended place to offer other comments). Contact information in other service categories brings the viewer to a similar submission form. However, these forms list topics specific to the service area. That helps the viewer direct the right inquiry to the right people at A.T. Kearney. Yet it is difficult for the viewer to learn about the consulting firm’s subject-matter experts in each service (except those who authored articles or books listed on the site). This is not to single out A.T. Kearney; most of the websites of the large professional services firms that we rated did not reveal their experts’ contact information.

We believe that when a professional services website is highly effective at introducing, educating and connecting prospects, most leads will eventually come through the site. You will also increase the quality of those leads – i.e., the degree to which those prospects understand what your firm does, your approaches, your take on their issue, and your client work. Having a prospect already informed on these issues before the face-to-face sales meeting begins will significantly reduce the time required to explain “what you do” and “how you do it.” It will increase the time you can spend talking about the prospect’s issues and how you could help them. This will be a great relief to the professional services business developers who find that they spend two-thirds of a sales meeting trying to explain what their firm does and little time on the prospect’s problems.

The Tip of the Online Iceberg

Even the few professional services firms that have organized their websites along the lines we prescribe here have a major opportunity to improve how they introduce, educate and connect prospects to their experts. Professional services firms should look closely at a number of online technologies used in websites from other industries (especially online retailing) but rarely found in professional services. Here are but a few, which we discuss along the lines of our three organizing principles:

  • Introduction – “Wand-overs” that could turn titles of a service line into a client’s business problem (or vice versa). Imagine going on a consulting firm’s home page, putting your cursor over a service line such as “strategy” and having two bullet points come up: “How do we increase organic growth?” and “How do we identify new product and service opportunities in seemingly mature markets?” This technology would help the firm better connect its services to clients’ problems. In addition, an interactive Q&A guide could help visitors find the information they seek on the site. And a place on every Web page that lets the viewer “connect” at any point – i.e., contact someone in the firm who could respond by email, instant message or phone – would decrease the chances that a hot prospect ready to reach out to the firm gets lost in the website.
  • Education – There are several ways that a website can be superior to other media in demonstrating the value of a professional services firm. One is providing video clips of your clients giving testimonials on your work. Another is providing tools such as online calculators that show the impact of solving a certain business problem – for example, how a 10% improvement in customer retention would boost annual revenue. Use technologies that will help your visitors read other content on your site that they might find useful. For example, websites such as Amazon.com use “collaborative filtering” technologies that display what other content visitors to a page read as well. “Most popular” lists can let visitors know about what others think is most interesting to read on your site. And given that “thought leadership” articles, books, research reports should populate the pages of service lines, visitors should be able to read concise and enticing abstracts that summarize this content. Don’t expect visitors to take a chance on reading long articles they know little about. Also, use online signup forms so they can receive (via email, landmail, etc.) the publications, event invitations and other information that they are interested in. Make sure to eliminate multiple sign-ins.
  • Connection – A “live agent” will give visitors the chance to chat with a business development person at your firm. This lets the visitor ask questions without having to make a phone call or prepare a long email. Instant messenger buttons would put prospects directly in touch with business developers. Many visitors are comfortable with IM and will use it to ask questions that they might not pick up the phone to ask (especially if they have to call a general phone number). Online calendaring software would let prospects schedule discussions with your people without the intervention of assistants. Finally, give visitors multiple ways to contact your firm: phone, email, chat, instant messaging, etc. Web technologies can also help professional services firms determine what the market is interested in – i.e., what parts of their website are of greatest interest. Online retailers use this information already to improve product positioning, pricing, and inventory. A consulting firm that finds 80% of its website visitors over several weeks have been clicking on a new service line has important information to act upon – i.e., a very strong potential market for those services.

Powering Up Your Website

Any professional services firm can transform its website from a marginal online brochure to a powerful, lead-generating interactive marketing and sales tool. What it will need, however, is a clear mandate to organize the site from the clients’ problems-backward, extensive content to show the firm’s depth of expertise and client experience in its service offerings, the ability to communicate in the language of its clients and prospects (and not the jargon of its professionals), presenting all marketing content in the context of the business solution provided, and the backing of the firm’s business developers to get the firm’s experts more involved in the business development process.

A powerful website will help a professional services greatly increase its lead stream. It will also provide its chief marketing officer with much of the data that he or she has sought for years: proof of marketing’s value to the firm. Showing the leads that come through the Web should end the perennial complaint of practice leaders and firm management that “marketing isn’t valuable.” By making prospects far better informed of the firm’s unique capabilities, such websites should also improve the sales conversion ratio – the number of sales meetings that lead to work.

By generating those kinds of benefits, the professional services website is destined to become the most effective professional services marketing tool. But to have such a website, most professional services firms will have to dramatically change their present sites. They must begin the organization of their sites by the business problems they solve – not by their collective assets (offices, management, articles, etc.). By connecting with prospects in this manner and showing the firm’s depth of expertise and experience, these websites will become magnets that draw clients in and compel them to ask for meetings and proposals.

Footnotes:

  1. Forrester Research Consulting Survey for American Business Media, a trade association for trade publishing companies. Forrester surveyed 56 professional services firms, out of 867 companies across industries. Of the 56 professional services firms, 23% had revenue of $1 billion or more, 29% were between $100 million and $1 billion in revenue, and 48% had revenue of less than $100 million. For more information, go to www.americanbusinessmedia.com.
  2. Forbes.com survey by research.net. It must be noted that the survey participants all were users of forbes.com, which opens up the possibility of a skewed response.
  3. Michael Hopkin, “Web users judge sites in the blink of an eye,” nature, Jan. 13, 2006. The article cited research published in 2006 in The Journal of Behavior and Information Technology by three by three professors at Carleton University in Ottawa. See http://www.nature.com/news/2006/060109/pf/060109-13_pf.html.
  4. From the website of eWorkMarkets, a website for helping companies findconsultants. See www.eworkmarkets.com.
  5. Pew Internet Project. Press release, May 17, 2005, “Most Internet users do ‘health homework’ online.” See:http://www.pewinternet.org/Press-Releases/2005/More-internet-users-do-health-homework-online.aspx