The New Role Of Marketing In The Consulting Firm: Building Visibility And Trust

Contrary to popular belief, marketing is not merely about selling stuff. Marketing in consulting is all about building long-term visibility and trust.

As I’ve seen time and time again, consultants don’t like marketing and sales. Many of the Consultants I’ve met in the past believe that marketing is beneath them. This type of thinking is just plain wrong. 

Marketing is not separate from you, as a consultant. Whether you like it or not, you are marketing yourself all of the time. A good consultant is a good marketer of his/her expertise (Luk Smeyers).

It’s extremely important for you as a consultant you move past this strange marketing belief and start embracing marketing as a critical trust-building, visibility-improving activity. 

Unfortunately, many of the marketing departments in larger consulting firms are not really focused on supporting the senior people or experts with developing and maintaining their external visibility and to help them with building trust in their markets/industry.  

Marketing in consulting firms will need to refocus urgently

I’ve been meeting with lots of consultants from the large consulting firms in the past few years. 

Here’s their overarching comment on the marketing function in their organizations: marketing is excellent in event-driven PR, (monitoring/policing) corporate branding, in organizing all kinds of client happenings (and they are very good at it), in building generic firm/brand exposure, and doing some across-the-board social media to (re)share (mostly excellent) global content or to promote corporate events (or to report from those events). 

Here are a few quotes from partners from large consultancy firms I talked to during my ‘Visible Authority Research Project’ in 2019 (read here the outcomes of my research):

Quote 1: “Going towards a more visible niche position for myself would require me to be more clear on the story I would bring and it would be hard to manage that without strong support from the marketing team.”

Quote 2: “We don’t know the specific marketing tools that are running today or which are possible for us. I will need help knowing how to leverage marketing tech to build a brand around myself.” 

Quote 3: “We’re doing more or less no marketing at the moment. We’re just networking. Most of our clients are people I already know.” 

Senior consultants are looking at marketing to get more support as visible experts and thought leaders.

There’s a lot of excellent corporate branding work, they admit, but what they are concerned about, compared to some of the (new) digitally-driven (often smaller) consultancies, is the lack of specific playbooks and processes to propel their external visibility in key strategic areas of the firm. 

A little amount of - often inconsistent - corporate external PR and press communications (an article here and there) won’t help them to establish a strong digital footprint as authorities, they are telling me. 

Combining the power of the brand with the visibility of the expert

Authorities in key strategic consulting domains in the firm (e.g. cyber security, advanced analytics, digital transformations, organizational transformation,...), are often left to their own devices and don’t get the personalized marketing support they need.

It’s a big missed opportunity not to combine the power of the consulting firm’s brand with the visibility of the expert in the market/industry! 

Recommended reading: Why thought leadership will be developing a consulting-business

On top, not creating that unique blend, is a risky choice, given that some aggressive (mostly smaller and newer) players are rocking the (digital marketing) boat and are putting expert faces to the services they provide. 

It’s a scary thought for many consultants that those smaller guys are only 1 click away from their clients. With client loyalty at an all-time low, that is keeping experts and authorities awake at night (Luk Smeyers). 

Even some of the very big firms are changing their approach towards ‘creating authorities’ step by step. Have a look at this page from McKinsey, promoting its experts in change management and transformation. 

I am doing quite a bit of workshops with consultancy firms and in this article, I’ve summarized below how senior consultants and marketing departments can start collaborate to improve the consultant’s visible authority in the market. 

My advice to the senior consultants, partners/principles 

Make sure you absolutely ‘claim the subject’ (your expertise domain) big time and grow your visibility by giving people (prospects AND existing clients) an abundance of trust in your expertise! Join forces with marketing (even if you don’t like it) to get their unique support (see list below), to start leveraging martech (marketing technology), and drive the digital agenda to grow your consulting business (and visibility) in your market/industry. 

Here’s the new agenda for seniors and partners/principles in consulting firms:

  • Positioning: define a crystal clear positioning of your expertise in the market, meaning: 
    • developing the (narrow) focus and positioning of your expertise

    • developing a bold point of view to 'claim the subject'

    • defining your ideal audience, your top 50-100 ideal clients

    • understanding the most critical pains/gains of these ideal clients (persona) 

    • developing a specific pain-resolution, value-based offering for those ideal clients

  • Content: become obsessed with content-driven inbound marketing. Develop the big picture of your content strategy, starting from the ideal client’s pains/gains (what are the 3-5 most important topics to cover over the next 12 month period?) (pains/gains based on ideal client persona, see further). Don’t forget, your digitally-driven competitors excel at content-based inbound marketing! 

  • Writing: build writing capacity within your existing consulting team to support the development of new content and execute the content calendar (see further). Make sure you structurally plan non-billable time for team members who excel at producing valuable content (e.g. case studies), otherwise nothing will happen. But don’t be too naive, there aren’t that many good writers in your team, so work with marketing to leverage external writing capacity (I used - and still use - external writing support all the time). 

Cash-flow into your business is in direct proportion to communication flowing out. Whenever I find a business that is struggling, it is often a reflection of poor communications going out, not enough communications going out, or both. In general, I find a six week cycle between communication and cash-flow. Stop communicating today and in six weeks you will see an impact on your cash-flow (Robert Kyosaki).

  • Localization of global content: take co-ownership (with marketing) of the localization of global content (most large consultancy firms have top-notch global content). Add local trends and your expert-learnings from the project trenches to structurally nurture your local network, clients & prospects (sending them updates, trends, new learnings in a consistent and structured way). Initiate additional research projects and share, share, share the outcomes. And if your consulting firm is scared to let you share your expertise, read here my myth-busting article

  • Visibility: grow your external visibility and exposure via a well-thought BBC approach: Book (or eBooks, white papers,...), Blogging (writing) on important external platforms (such as industry associations) and your very own social media (LinkedIn most likely), and speaking at important Conferences. Get visible! Read here how I’ve leveraged the BBC approach in the past decade. 
  • Social Proof: organize the social proof of your client work: gathering problem-resolution references from clients (explaining the problems you solved) and the development of case-studies (with your team) with your learnings (and share those learnings publicly, share, share and share).

My advice to marketing in consulting firms

Add a new focus area in your marketing portfolio: building visibility for specific authorities in your firm (from key strategic business lines) with (highly automated) content-driven inbound (smart) marketing approaches. Immediately start adding new specific KPI’s to all your authority-related, thought leadership marketing objectives. Instead of measuring ‘the brand’ (if at all, I’ve seen poor data availability), you also start measuring the impact of your critical thought leadership activities.

Here’s a recent experience: I did a virtual workshop for the marketing team of a large consultancy firm and they explained to me they had started to cautiously mirror some of the activities and playbooks of a high-end management agency of famous sports stars. Apparently, they were learning a lot from them how that (well-known) agency was organizing the (digital & data-driven) marketing of their ‘authorities’ (famous sport stars). 

Here’s the new agenda for marketing in consulting firms:

  • Client persona: be the experts in facilitating client persona ideation workshops together with your authorities (and his/her consulting teams). Yes, this is a new essential role! Client personas are your bread and butter, dear consulting marketer! 
  • Content strategy: take ownership of the overall content strategy and content calendar management for each of your authorities (not a small job, hence why you have to be selective...key strategic areas only) and co-manage this with the consultant and his/her team. Develop playbooks and SOP’s to maximize the self-sufficiency of the consultants (and teams). 
  • Leverage global content by localizing it together with the expert-consultant (it’s a joint exercise!), Again, this is also an excellent way to 10x important global content.
  • Google: become the experts (or get external support) in Google keyword analysis and SEO (search engine optimization) to support the organic visibility growth of your authorities. Make sure you take this into consideration when training the internal/external writing and content development. Organic traffic growth is a KPI you should start monitoring and explain to the consultants. 
  • Authority page: support your authorities with building a high quality ‘authority page’ of their profile. When I look at the profile pages of the majority of the consultants in the large consultancy firms, I often need to close my eyes out of vicarious shame. Those pages need to be top-notch, with 1) a clear expertise statement, 2) the authority’s differentiating point of view, 3) an abundance of references to trust-building content, and 4) the best possible social proof: problem resolution references from previous projects and detailed case studies. This is one of the most neglected components of thought leadership development. Shame on you (both consultants and marketing)! 
  • Martech: become the gurus of marketing technology and automation, email list building (to nurture new/existing clients with new findings, learnings, trends), and social media (become inbound content-driven instead of outbound event-driven). If you don’t master the digital marketing agenda, you’ll be crushed by your digitally savvy competitors (only 1 click away from your not-so-loyal-anymore client).

Your expertise will sit alone, shipwrecked and starving on a distant desert island, unless you stand up and start calling attention to the work you do and the problems you are committed to solve (Tom McMakin in 'Why Clients Buy').

Conclusion: 3 things to start doing tomorrow

1. Align: make sure marketing and your selection of authorities from key strategic business lines, align on the visibility and trust-building goals and co-own the agenda, objectives and KPI’s. 

2. Collaborate: maybe marketing and consultants haven’t worked together yet on the visible authority agenda but just put this new collaboration format to work for your organization. Period. 

3. Go fast: you don’t have a lot of choices but to join forces quickly. Keep this in mind: your competition is moving forward aggressively (it’s amazing what is going on right now!). You will need to jointly propel the digital and data-driven thought leadership status of selected top experts in your firm to stand out in an overcrowded, extremely competitive consulting market.

Educate your buyers, show them best practice, tell them what to look out for, give them valuable tips on how to achieve success, demonstrate how you have helped others in their shoes (Sonja Jefferson and Sharon Tanton in 'Valuable Content Marketing')

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