How to Market Your Consulting Services: A Research Report

By Bob Buday

Spending on thought leadership marketing in the consulting industry is soaring, according to a 2016 survey conducted by Bloom Group and the Association of Management Consulting Firms (AMCF).

Consulting firms more than doubled their investment in thought leadership marketing in 2016, spending 1.9% of annual revenue as opposed to 0.9% in 2015. And that 1.9% is a much higher percentage of revenue devoted to thought leadership marketing than in the previous five years we’ve conducted this survey. [See Figure 1, “Investing in Thought Leadership,” for the five-year trend.] That translates to an average of $6.6 million spent per year by the 117 responding firms (with average annual revenues of $344 million). 

For very good reasons, marketers believe thought leadership is critical to management consulting marketing, helping them win engagements and drive sales. Their potential clients, for whom hiring a consulting firm is a big decision, with a lot riding on it, say the quality of a firm’s thought leadership is a significant factor in their decision-making. In fact, in a Bloom Group 2016 survey of over 700 consulting firm services buyers, 68% say just that. And 92% say high-quality thought leadership content raises their opinion of a consulting firm, while 94% say poor quality content lowers it. 

It’s hard to argue with those figures, so, it’s no wonder consulting firms are backing up their thought leadership efforts with budget. 

But do these firms believe they’re getting their money’s worth? 

 

Not so much.

Less than a third of the responding firms rate the effectiveness of their thought leadership marketing programs as either “extremely” or “highly” effective. And the percentage of firms that glumly averred their efforts were merely “moderately” effective (a low bar indeed) fell from 65% in 2015 to 46% in 2016, while the percentage that rated their programs as “slightly” or “not at all” effective both rose. [See Figure 2, “Remind Us Why We’re Doing This.”]

When one correlates what potential clients want – high-quality thought leadership – with the dissatisfaction expressed by consulting firms in their thought leadership marketing’s effectiveness, one is forced to conclude that these firms are failing to produce enough high-quality content. 

Now, why would that be the case?

Who’s in Charge Here?

Consulting firms say they are adequate, but not great, at such key content development jobs as choosing good topics, working with consultants with deep expertise, and pursuing a focused portfolio of topics that reflect the firm’s expertise. They confess to be being weaker at getting time from their subject matter experts to develop those good topics, getting good writing out of their consultants, and getting approval to publish in an expeditious manner.

We believe the root of the last three problems is the fact that responsibility for content development, and therefore responsibility for the thought leadership potential clients will see, and upon which (as we’ve seen) they will base their judgement about whether to hire a firm, is often fragmented. Less than half of the responding firms had their content development function reporting to marketing. Sometimes it reported to the individual consulting practices; sometimes to a client services group. In other words, in over half these firms there was no one function, or decider, that ran thought leadership content marketing. [See Figure 3, “Who’s in Charge Here?”]

We decided to look at what differentiated firms that not only rated their thought leadership content programs most highly, but had the leads to back up their belief, from those that did not.

What Separates Leaders from Laggards?

Our leaders rated their thought leadership marketing programs as “extremely” or “highly” effective; our laggards rated them “slightly” or “not at all” effective. Correcting and normalizing for firm size, leaders reported generating three times as many leads from their thought leadership marketing as laggards.

Not surprisingly, we found marked differences between how leaders and laggards develop thought leadership content, and how they orchestrate their thought leadership marketing campaigns. In fact, we found eight in which the practices of leaders and laggards diverged significantly.

The 8 Habits of Highly Successful Thought Leadership Marketers

Our leading thought leadership marketers:

1.    Focus rigorously on the topics their firms should own
2.    Develop and follow a repeatable process for thought leadership content development
3.    Conduct qualitative research
4.    Help their consultants advance their ideas (rather than simply capturing them)
5.    Orchestrate multi-channel marketing campaigns
6.    Invest aggressively in thought leadership
7.    Track results (thereby getting more budget and internal buy-in)
8.    Are responsible for content development

Leaders pursue a focused portfolio of topics that highlight their firms’ deep expertise; laggards choose topics in a less rigorous manner, trying to cover the waterfront. By going deeper on fewer issues, leaders increase the likelihood of developing compelling insights on topics of great importance to their potential clients. 

Leaders employ a process for developing content, rather than waiting for subject matter experts to gift them with articles. Most often, they:

  • Get their consultants to summarize their ideas before they begin to write
  • Have an approval process for ideas and articles their experts buy into
  • Employ professional writers who work with the subject matter experts
  • Begin article writing with outlines, and collect feedback and edits on the outlines before starting to write the article
  • Focus on identify a problem, with a solution, and provide clear examples that validate both

Leaders conduct research to feed their insights on identifying business problems and solving them. Although both leaders and followers say their consultants’ field experience is their best source of content, 55% of leaders note the importance of research, as compared to only 38% of laggards. That spread is similar when it comes to primary qualitative research: 33% of leaders stress its importance in learning from companies and executives outside their client pool as opposed to only 17% of laggards.

Leaders help develop their consultants’ ideas by teaming them up with writers and editors (either internal staff or contractors). To impress potential clients, content must be communicated well, and professional writers and best suited to doing that. Consultants must work with clients; they rarely have the leisure to write articles. As one content director at a consulting firm told us, teaming consultants with content developers is less “distracting to partners and consultants.”

Leaders market their consulting services by disseminating content through multiple channels. At least 40% of our leaders consistently marketed their thought leadership through a combination of conference presentations (61%). LinkedIn company pages (55%), webinars (55%), self-published articles (45%), and emailed newsletters (42%). Conversely, at least 40% of our laggards put all their marketing eggs in one basket and used only one channel per campaign, most often conference presentations (41%). Leaders also are far more social media savvy: 55% of our leaders used LinkedIn company page updates to feature thought leadership in contrast to only 21% of laggards.

Leaders simply spend more money on thought leadership marketing as a percentage of revenue than do laggards, 2.3% to 1.4%. The money the leaders spend – on writers, editors, staff, publications, conferences, and more – comes back to them, first as leads, then as revenue.

Leaders also track the impact of their investment, remembering that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Indeed, 79% of leaders have metrics in place by which to judge the success and effectiveness of their thought leadership marketing efforts as opposed to 41% of the laggards. By tracking success, leaders create a virtuous circle that attracts more investment to their thought leadership content development and marketing by proving its value to the whole organization.

Leaders put thought leadership marketing in the hands of marketing… which makes sense, doesn’t it? In 56% of our leaders, content development reports to marketing; only 41% of laggards’ content developers report to marketing. Putting a consulting firm’s marketing leader in charge of thought leadership bears many fruits. It puts the entire firm on notice that thought leadership is being taken seriously by the C-suite, and thereby focuses the attention of partners and consultants – the source of the insights that potential clients are seeking. Lodging responsibility in one function, rather than distributing it, also make it easier for a firm to focus on and follow the eight habits of successful thought leadership marketing. 

All 8 Habits Are Important, But the Last One Is Key

It is marketing’s role to promote a consulting business with compelling content. The best thought leadership marketers take responsibility for helping consultants hone their arguments, get them written in a professional manner, and then make sure they are seen by the right people at the right time through the right channels. And the best marketers make sure the content is good by establishing and maintaining standards of excellence. A marketing program rises or falls on the strength of the content being marketed. Lackluster content (as we’ve seen) will tarnish a firm’s image, hobble it in the marketplace of ideas, drive away business… and eventually will cost the person in charge their job.

Therefore, it behooves the marketer to elevate his or her role within the firm to make certain that the ideas taken to market represent the best the firm can offer. Marketing’s expertise lies in determining what kind of content moves audiences to make inquiries, request meetings, and ultimately purchase services. Marketing knows how to communicate complex ideas in ways that they can be understood by the people that need the help their firms provide. 

Marketers that shrink from this responsibility are doing themselves, and their firms, a disservice. That’s why consulting firms that profit most from thought leadership content marketing put marketing in the driver’s seat.
 

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