December 10, 2020
Professional Services Firms Need a New Kind of Content Strategy
The professional services marketer who sets out to develop a content strategy is likely to find the process frustrating, the execution lackluster and the results disappointing.
The process of creating a content strategy can be a nightmare in consensus-driven partnerships. Strategy requires setting limits, which can invite the fury of practice groups that aren’t identified as priorities. Most law firm leaders aren’t going to go there. Marketers who do manage to create a strategy are likely to find strategic elements like governance and promotional schedules completely ineffectual when dealing with partners and their impenetrable calendars.
Instead of putting yourself through that agony, try stripping your content strategy down to the essentials. Create a basic, realistic plan to produce content with strategic value – and put your energy and resources into content that establishes the firm’s authority – and ultimately helps it win new business.
4 elements of a better professional services content strategy
A plan with the following four elements represents a strong framework for most professional services firms:
- Authorities: which subject matter experts you want to amplify
- Audiences: who your authorities are trying to influence – and what they need to know
- Formats: client alerts, bylines, LinkedIn posts – whatever will be the most effective vehicle engaging those audiences
- Schedule: how many pieces do you want to publish, in what time frame?
Note that a content plan like this won’t cover all the content your firm produces. It should be designed for only the firm’s most strategic and valuable content – perspectives that open doors. Client alerts from non-priority industry groups, bylines lawyers write without telling you about it, blogs of low-margin practice groups – all of these things should be optimized, with efficient editing and targeted promotion. That frees the marketing team to direct its editorial, creative and budgetary resources at the content most likely to generate new business.
Here’s a closer look at the four critical elements of a feasible content plan.
Authorities: Impact players with something to say
Choosing which of your firm’s advisors deserve the most marketing resources comes down to knowing where the firm has the greatest opportunities to grab new revenue.
Ideally, the decision derives from firm-level business strategy set by leadership. Firm leaders who identify priority practice or industry areas, or create annual strategy documents that identify key growth areas, make the decision for you.
Marketers who don’t have firm strategies to guide them will most likely have to sit down with leadership to identify which professionals or groups merit the team’s strongest support.
We’re not advising anyone to simply anoint the biggest rainmakers as your authorities. The advisors you’ll want to work with are those who are willing to invest the time and, most importantly, willing to deliver the goods: the insights and perspective that will ensure they are not just heard, but heeded.
Audiences: Finding a POV
What do your target audiences need to know that they’re not getting elsewhere? The answer will provide the first critical element of your content plan.
Traditionally, we rely on the advisors to tell us what their clients and prospects need to know. That’s fine – they should know – but it’s also imprecise. A cybersecurity consultant might tell you her clients want insights on privacy rules in California – because a single client asked her about it that morning. Or because the client they care most about raised the topic. Or because they think their clients should care about it – probably just because it’s what they want to say.
To paint a more accurate, objective picture of the audience’s needs, we use technology tools that assess search data, which we view as a proxy for audience need. To get an even more complete picture we use Voice of the Client research. At the very least, a thorough review of the media landscape will tell you what’s already being said, and what’s not; juxtapose that with your expert’s view of the audience need to figure out which unmet needs you can fill.
Formats: Follow the data, and focus on what’s inside
Don’t make this more complicated than it needs to be. Our research tells us that the folks in the C-suite, especially in-house lawyers, mostly want written content, especially articles. They want brevity in client alerts and depth in research reports.
Consider repeatable, standardized forms that will be easy to replicate. For instance a series of short (less than 400 words) pieces, by multiple attorneys, framing the pressing issues in an industry with strategic value to the firm can help showcase the breadth and depth of the firm’s authority. A magazine-style approach that quotes the firm’s experts – but doesn’t ask them to write or even put their byline on anything – can expedite production and establish the firm’s value as a resource.
Editorial Calendars: Creating reasonable constraints
An editorial calendar with columns covering every stage of production, publishing, distribution and measurement will be useless if you have no way of enforcing deadlines with partners – whose schedules are already packed and who will always prioritize client work over marketing (as they should). But you need to create some constraints, if only to give yourself and your team some urgency. Just keep it simple.
Decide how many pieces you believe you should publish, and in what time frame (weekly? monthly?).
Neither decision should be all that complicated. Consider the audience need, the depth of insights your advisors have to offer and the pace of the news around the issue you’re addressing. You want to produce enough content to establish your advisor’s authority, and you want to ensure your insights address the issues your audience cares about now, before the issue evolves or all of your competitors have already written about it.
Content that rises above the noise
Your content plan won’t get you anywhere if you’re not creating content that will rise above the noise. Creating a simple, feasible plan allows you to spend more time ensuring your content will connect with audiences, establish the firm’s authority and open the door to client development.
To accomplish that, focus on four qualities: relevance, novelty, urgency and utility. If you’ve done the audience research, you’ve got the first three at your fingertips. You know which insights will impact the reader’s business (relevance), which ones they’re not getting anywhere else (novelty) and which ones they need today (urgency).
The fourth, and most critical, component has to come from your advisors. Utility is what separates authoritative content – the stuff that moves clients to pick up the phone and call your firm – from all the other content out there.
To get at it, focus on pushing your advisors to answer this question: what do I need to do to navigate or address this issue today? Then take the answer and build your content around it, starting with the headline. Getting to utility isn’t always as easy as asking a question, but it’s worth holding out until you get to it. Readers want it above all else.
If this all sounds oversimplified, it’s supposed to be. We’d all love to have sophisticated content strategies – they work for companies that can execute on them. But marketers at lots of businesses, especially in professional services, face a different reality. And while that reality will often frustrate their efforts to execute on content strategy – or even to develop the strategies at all – it doesn’t have to prevent them from creating effective content.