When it comes to marketing for professional services, ideas, expertise, and authority are the most valuable currency. Attracting clients and partners starts with proof of work and demonstrated excellence.
As a professional services firm, how do you prove that you are an expert in your space? Why should anyone trust you to solve their problems? How do you reach prospective clients and demonstrate your expertise to make them want to get in touch with you? How do you drive brand awareness and pipeline beyond customer referrals or outbound marketing?
The answer is Inbound marketing.
Specifically, it’s about producing content that gets your point of view, expertise, and offerings in front of people searching for answers to their problems. A content marketing strategy done correctly can put the flywheel in motion to get new customers who implicitly trust you based on your demonstrated expertise.
Why Professional Services Companies Need a Content Strategy
Let’s start with what we mean when we say professional services.
The term “professional services company” refers to a business that offers an intangible, knowledge-based service or product that helps customers manage a part of their business or personal lives. Professional service is industry-agnostic – it applies to doctors and lawyers as much as it does to money managers, venture firms, and marketing agencies.
Regardless of where you sit in this vast space, in professional services, you almost always get hired based on your ability to solve people’s problems.
Referrals are always going to be vital sources of lead generation for any professional services company. A happy client can work wonders for you, but relying on word of mouth to fill all of your pipeline will ultimately limit how fast you can grow. You need a way to get in front of potential clients that scales without you having to do manual, one-by-one outreach.
One of the best ways to get in front of your potential clients is by being visible when they use search engines to answer questions and find resources that help them learn, do something, or go somewhere. Internet Live Stats shows that 3.5 billion searches happen on Google every day, and the number of searches is increasing by about 10 percent a year. Research from Moz showed that eight percent of those searches are questions.
Some people think that their businesses are too niche to have success with Search. Others believe that their audience isn’t looking on Google for answers. In light of how ubiquitous Google is, it’s fair to say those assumptions just aren’t correct. Your audience is most likely using Google in some way in their jobs or personal lives. Remember – you get hired to solve problems. When people have issues, they go to Google as a starting point. So when they search for something relevant to your business, you want to be visible.
Unfortunately, many professional services’ spaces are crowded. You’re likely one accountant/marketing agency/financial services/etc. company among thousands that searchers can find on Google. Your target audience is likely not starved for choices. You need a way to stand out, and quality content is the best way to do so.
Content isn’t only about SEO. Search is just one distribution channel. Without content, you’ll have very little to fuel your social media marketing, email marketing, and guest posting. Curation can help, but without your own content, you’ll have very little substance to connect with your audience. You need to develop your own content strategy if you want a steady flow of inbound leads.
How to Develop a Content Marketing Strategy for Professional Services
Developing a content strategy for a professional services firm of any kind requires you to know your competitors’ positions in the market, while carefully defining your own.
Here are some principles to keep in mind before you get into the tactical side of content planning.
Have a Point of View
We always hear about “thought leadership.” It’s a term reserved for people in an industry with large social media followings, email lists, and well-known blogs. The benefits of attaining a position of thought leadership include authority in your industry and building trust among your audience at scale.
Thought leadership, by definition, cannot be earned by simply copying what others have said on the topics you want to be an authority on. If you and your team are experts in your field – and we can assume they are – tap into their knowledge and make them the stars of your content.
In most cases, starting with keyword research is the wrong move. It’s better to ask the following questions first:
- “What do we know about better than anyone else?”
- “What popular wisdom in our space do we disagree with?”
- “What are the things our customers ask about that no one seems to be helping them with?”
This is how you can make sure your content strategy is built on the foundation of your brand. The tactical side of researching topics/keywords, creating an editorial calendar, and determining a distribution strategy falls into place around your core differentiators.
It all starts with having a point of view. Your content should be factual, well-researched, and cite relevant experts inside and outside your organization. But being neutral and having no real opinion on anything is riskier than taking a position and expressing it clearly and convincingly.
Having a strong position or a point of view is a competitive advantage for anyone producing content today. It’s practically impossible to successfully imitate a well-defined, defensible position on a topic, trend, or industry. Imitators often look like cheap knockoffs.
Experts aren’t people who withhold all judgment on a topic. They weigh the evidence, navigate ambiguity, and share the fruits of their experience and knowledge. They take a firm point of view while staying open to feedback.
Having a distinct point of view or a strong position on something can benefit your content. Marketer Wes Kao calls this having a “spiky point of view” – taking a stance on a topic, trend, or industry that other people can disagree with. It’s not about courting controversy or being a contrarian just for the sake of getting pageviews. It’s about understanding your positioning deeply and speaking to it in the content your team produces.
Ryan Law of Animalz explains this principle well in his piece about why Wirecutter, the product review site recently acquired by The New York Times, has been so successful.
“Most content today avoids having an opinion—and suffers for it. Articles tend to take the path of least resistance, consolidating information that’s available elsewhere on the web instead of reaching its own conclusion and taking a stand. The onus of decision-making is on the reader instead of the writer,” Ryan wrote. “Like Wirecutter, great content marketing does the harder, better thing: it shares an opinion. In doing so, it becomes more useful, more memorable, and harder to copy.”
You don’t have to run a review site to adopt this mindset and let it guide your own content creation.
Yes, you might repel some potential clients who disagree with you. Those people were never going to be a good fit for you, anyway. Be like Wirecutter. Have an opinion and defend it with expertise.
Unleash Your Experts to Build Authority
Authority isn’t only about getting backlinks. Search engines increasingly understand authority the way humans do. SEOs and content strategists have likely heard of E-A-T, which stands for Expertise, Authority, and Trust. Google’s Search Quality Rater Guidelines discusses the topic in great detail.
Essentially, Google doesn’t want to serve its users articles written by amateurs, especially if it’s on a topic that can affect the users’ happiness, health, or wealth. Signals such as accreditation, placement, or mentions on reputable news sites, and online reviews are used by Google’s algorithm to determine who is credible within the E-A-T framework. E-A-T isn’t something you can optimize for in the traditional SEO sense of the word. It has to be built organically.
What does that have to do with professional services? SEO expert Marie Haynes explains E-A-T in the following way:
“If you are looking for tax advice, would you prefer to read an article written by someone with a journalism degree or by someone who has been a tax accountant for decades and is known as an authority in that field? If you have been diagnosed with cancer, do you want to read articles on your condition written by an SEO content writer or articles written by a physician who has been treating this condition for years and is known as the world’s leading expert on the subject?”
Your experts need to be at the forefront of your content development if you want to see success in search and beyond.
None of this is to say that all of your employees need to write the content themselves. They should be expected and enabled to provide their insights via their own writing, or by being available do interviews with your writers.
Beyond content production, having your employees invested in the distribution of their content can pay dividends.
Encourage your employees to share their content, and that of their colleagues, across social channels. For B2B professional services, LinkedIn can be a key distribution channel if your employees are willing to share content via personal channels. Research from Ironpaper showed that “when employees share content, they typically see a click-through rate that is 2x higher than when their company shares the same content.”
When it comes to social channels, people follow people, not brands. By making your experts active stakeholders in your content creation, they’re more likely to want to share their expertise and expand the reach of your content.
Build Content Clusters That Cover the Buyer’s Journey
You have your point of view. You have SMEs ready to write or supply their knowledge and expertise for content production. Now how do you execute on your strategy?
The best approach when determining subject matter and organization is a content cluster. A topic cluster consists of multiple pieces of content grouped by a shared topic and related subtopics. A cluster offers comprehensive coverage of a specific subject that covers every possible intent a user could have when searching on the topic. All of this content is interlinked and easy to access, so no matter where users start, they can find all of the information relevant to their searches.
Here are the high-level steps to building a content cluster, with some additional resources to go deeper.
- Start with a topic related to your business or products. If you’re not sure where to start, check out our Content Strategy Crash Course.
- Use a topic model to determine all of the possible user intents within that topic area. Start with what a user would be searching for if they already knew the solution to their problem. These are people who are at the bottom of the funnel. Build out to mid-funnel and top-of-funnel topics as you expand your cluster.
- Build a pillar page that acts as the center of the cluster. It should cover the topic at a broad, 101 level, incorporating many different user intents.
- Create “cluster” content that dives deeper on the related topics and covers individual user intents at a greater depth. These tend to be long-tail, explicit intent topics that answer specific questions users have on the subject.
The benefits of organizing your content this way are twofold: It makes it easy for search engines and users to find topically related content on your site. It enables visitors to satisfy their original search query while having a clear path to learning more about the topic and finding a solution.
“It’s not about answering a user’s first question. It’s about answering that question and the next five they’ll have once they find the answer they’re looking for,” MarketMuse Chief Product Officer Jeff Coyle says.
By creating a content cluster that covers the entire buyer’s journey, you can attract users at various stages of their decision-making process, all while giving them everything they need to move down-funnel. The buyer’s journey is not linear. You can’t rely only on bottom-funnel, “me”-focused content. At the other extreme, you can’t forget to talk about your services in favor of being purely informational.
You’ll attract searchers in all phases of their decision-making process if you have comprehensive content that covers everything someone would need to know to make a decision. It’s not about one blog post, but rather the tapestry you weave across every facet of a topic you’re an expert on.
As a professional services firm, the specific tactics you use to drive your content marketing effort will vary based on your vertical, your area of expertise, and your overall brand strategy. Success in content marketing starts with defining what you want to be about and building your plan from there.
Written by Camden Gaspar