In professional services, relationships and referrals are the anchor of business development. On any given day, executives resort to asking friends and colleagues for recommendations and referrals of service providers.

Typically, in the past, those referrals were driven by geographic proximity, and the willingness to hire someone from afar became more acceptable only if the connection was through a personal referral.

Fast-forward to today, and 43% of all marketers have found a customer via LinkedIn in 2013 (Source: HubSpot)—confirmation that geographic barriers are now less of an issue.

Increased acceptance for distant providers is driven by the following:

  • We desire to work with "the best," regardless of location, because doing so is now possible.
  • Demographics have changed: Digital natives and time pressures drive buyers to look online for education on the pressing issues they are facing.
  • Through online search, executives are looking to "narrow the search" for providers.
  • Technology is helping all of us become more comfortable conducting business remotely.

Personal referrals continue to play a major role in business development for professional services, and personal connections still contribute to the identification of business partners. However, the geographic barriers are dwindling away.

If conducting business from afar is the new norm, how do sellers reach those prospects from far away? Enter content marketing in professional services.

Two years ago, content marketing was hardly on the radar of most professional services firms, which have, historically, focused on producing content that is specific to their organization and is more sales oriented. Today, a good content marketing strategy involves producing and distributing material that is valuable and interesting to larger target audiences.

The Content Marketing Model

  1. Create blog posts, articles, whitepapers, webinars, videos, and books on topics/issues important to your target audiences.
  2. Promote the content through social media, speaking engagements, and other presentations.
  3. Convert readers by allowing them to access information freely and, in the case of the most substantial types of content, in exchange for providing at least an email address.
  4. Engage through phone consultations, assessments, and demonstrations. All along, you continue to demonstrate your firm's knowledge and expertise with the goal of moving to the stage where a proposal is requested.

The goal (and value) of the content marketing model is to build trust and engagement—one step at a time. Focus on topics and issues that are important to your target audiences—those buyers and influencers that you encounter during the business development process.

Let's face it, busy executives want answers and they want them now. At the very least, they are looking to understand issues and possible solutions that are important to them today. But they don't want to waste precious time doing it. So, if educational content from your firm is not found online, then you might as well not exist. It's no surprise that 23% of marketers are investing in blogging and social media in 2013—a 9% increase from 2012 (according to HubSpot).

Benefits of Content Marketing

  • It is less expensive. A recent study by HubSpot revealed that the average cost of a lead generated by inbound marketing techniques (those driven by content marketing) was 60% less ($134 vs. $332) than leads generated from more traditional, outbound marketing tactics.
  • It enhances search indexing potential. Every piece of content on your site is another chance to be indexed by search engines.
  • It allows you to nurture your prospects. Having useful content on your site helps visitors through the buying process. The more they rely on your firm as a source for education, the more they will grow to trust you and turn to you when they need services.
  • It encourages content efficiency. Repurposing educational content in various formats increases efficiency. Let's face it, there's not enough time in the day to get everything done, so work smarter, not harder.

The Must-Haves in Content Marketing

  1. Have a content calendar and someone who owns it. In the beginning, everyone wants to contribute. The reality is that excitement dwindles. If you want to be consistent, you need a content calendar and someone empowered to drive its implementation.
  2. It's all about them, not you. Your content marketing strategy needs to consider buying personas and the issues most relevant to prospects. Once you know who and what those are, then your content can be tailored to them and their interests.
  3. Variety is the spark. People consume information differently, so try different mediums—video, text, infographics. It's OK to go out of your firms' comfort zone—but smartly!
  4. Show your firm's culture. There is an expectation of transparency. Answer the question, "Who would my firm be working with?" Show your people, don't just talk about them.
  5. Channel excitement. Everyone can contribute to the production of content—some by writing, others by contributing industry insights and topic ideas. How? See item No. 1 in this list!

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A good content marketing strategy will help your firm grow and connect to partners and prospects in ways that no other marketing can do for your firm. Don't let the geographic barriers of yesteryear limit your firms' future potential.

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image of Sylvia Montgomery

Sylvia Montgomery is a senior partner at Hinge, provider of branding and marketing services for professional services firms.

Twitter: @BrandStrong

LinkedIn: Sylvia Montgomery