Services marketing efforts are moving online not because a few marketing consultants and strategists say they are—but because your clients and prospects are online, and their online experiences are influencing all buying decisions.

According to the Association for Online Retailers, in 2004 approximately 40% of adults with Internet access researched a potential product purchase online. As services marketers, focusing on everything from high-ticket items to sophisticated buyers, we wondered whether this was also true for business-to-business services.

So, in 2004, the Wellesley Hills Group polled approximately 200 SMB (small-to-midsize business) decision makers to see whether they visited the Web sites of business-to-business companies before they made a purchase from them. About 98% of buyers said yes. Approximately 50% stated that their online experience did, indeed, affect their purchasing decision.

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

Service companies—even those that are beginning to embrace marketing as a part of their strategy—seem woefully slow to embrace the march to the World Wide Web. When we have spoken to service-firm leaders, they have consistently provided semi-valid reasons for inaction:

  • Humbug: "We don't sell our services online. We aren't a soft drink company. We don't need ads. We don't need to create a 'Web site experience'."

    These people simply don't understand and don't believe... and don't want to.

  • Fix My Web Site: "Yes, we're getting serious about our marketing. Can you help us fix our site? We don't think it looks good."

    This is the equivalent of saying, "We need to get serious about our marketing. Let's redesign and rewrite our brochure." Yes, it may be necessary. But it's not sufficient.

  • Ready, Aim, Aim, Aim... Retreat: "We have talked about doing more online. And then talked some more and more...."

    The decision-making process in most 50-person service firms is slower than in a $500 million dollar company. They simply can't get out of their own way and allow themselves to implement a serious change to their marketing or business-development initiatives. And because online efforts are so new to them, they retreat to less-confusing ways: buying some ads in the local business journal, sponsoring a trade show, redesigning their brochure.

Break the Chains

To break free of old patterns of behavior and embrace new ways of acting, companies often need a significant or galvanizing event: a merger, a massive drop in sales, a major technological advance in their industry.

When it comes to marketing online, it is unlikely that there will be some major event to set your company in a new direction. But don't be fooled. A sea change has happened, and it's up to you to take advantage of it before your competitors use it to take advantage of you.

Here are four arguments you can use to help your firm break free of your marketing and decision-making quagmire and boldly enter the new world of online marketing:

1. Your buyers are online

As noted earlier, services buyers are headed online to evaluate your services. But it's not just evaluation: your potential customers are reading your articles (or articles about you) on online trade magazines; they are attending Webinars to help them make business decisions; they are reading your white papers online; and more and more they are expecting to see online videos describing you, your services and the successes you've had with other clients.

2. Marketing is now a two-step process

Whatever offline marketing you are doing—from direct marketing to advertising to speaking to PR—the first stop most buyers are making is your Web site.

When they get to your Web site, it can either draw them in further to your services and the promise of working with your firm, or it can confuse them—even upset them—and drive them away.

So if you're wondering why your direct mail isn't working like it used to, or if your event attendance is down, take a look at your site. Is it helping or hurting your marketing efforts?

3. The time for marketing strategy has arrived

Even in the recent past, marketing at a services firm consisted of having a nice brochure and handing it out when your rainmakers went on new business development meetings. So, as "let's hire a marketing person" became the call at many service firms over the last decade, the firm leaders immediately set their new marketing hires on the tasks of "redoing the brochure, getting our name out there through ads, updating our proposal template, and fixing the Web site."

And so, these mostly junior people jump right in on the graphic design and ad placement process. Unfortunately, "the graphic design-as-marketing" parade has gone by. It simply isn't enough any more.

Marketing at service firms should be approached not by asking "How should we do marketing," but "How do we want to grow? And what do we need to get done to reach these goals?" If you start here, you'll find you need your junior marketing people to execute the more difficult work of finding new customers, engaging them with marketing, helping to close new business and keeping existing customers happy and buying.

In 2005, this means you not only need to be online but also need to be doing the right things online for the right reasons: in other words—strategy.

4. Brand and response marketing converge

The previous three arguments can be summed up as "If you don't do this, you're in trouble." But it's not all doom and gloom. Online marketing creates a wealth of opportunities for above-average growth and success for firms willing to take advantage of it.

One of the best opportunities is the potential of combining your direct response marketing and your brand marketing into one integrated experience. Online, your branding experience (what you want customers to think about you) and your direct-marketing tactics (what you want your customers to do as a result of your marketing) are converging.

For example, you place an online ad in a top online trade e-newsletter that your customers read regularly. This helps your brand recognition as tens of thousands of potential buyers see it.

But you don't just place the ad; you also make an offer for a white paper on a topic that's important to them. They go to your Web site and form an immediate impression about you. If it's good, they stay and download the white paper. If it's not good, they are gone in 15 seconds.

If your marketing strategist is doing the job right, the customer entered your Web site on a landing page specifically designed to boost the percentage of people who stay on the site and download the white paper.

Let's assume they download your white paper. Next week, they read it and find it interesting and informative so they go back to your site to download the other two white papers there. To get these other white papers, they need to register on your site, which they're willing to do because they liked the first white paper. They read the second white paper and say to themselves, "This is very helpful. If we do need these services, I'm sure I'll loop this company into the process."

In your thank-you-for-registering email, you invite them to a Webinar (online seminar) that your firm is presenting next week. They register online and attend, along with two colleagues.... And the enticement into your firm and its services continues.

* * *

If this were a case study, I would finish the story about how client meets firms, client falls in love with firm, client hires firm.

For our purposes here, it's not important exactly how it plays out; it is important that this is how it is working for many of your potential clients these days. They are online and looking for your services. Are you ready for them?

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image of Mike Schultz

Mike Schultz is president of RAIN Group, a global sales training and performance improvement company, and director of the RAIN Group Center for Sales Research. He is the bestselling author of Rainmaking Conversations and Insight Selling. He also writes for the RAIN Selling Blog.

LinkedIn: Mike Schultz

Twitter: @mike_schultz