Wherever a corporate executive goes these days, information follows. Like the rest of us, a c-suite officer has a computer on her desk, a smart phone in her pocket, a laptop in her bag. She’s probably got Bluetooth in her car that serves her up calls and podcasts while she’s driving. Maybe she’s got a gadget on her kitchen counter that she can command to read the news while she makes coffee.
That anytime-anywhere access keeps her informed, apprised, sharp. It fuels her creativity and helps her spot risks before they arrive. But there’s a downside. With all of that information coming at her, she probably feels overwhelmed at times, if not all the time. If so, she’s in good company.
According to our firm’s 2017 State of Digital and Content Marketing survey, 97 percent of corporate general counsel suffer from information overload. And while our data covers legal executives, it’s safe to say that the signal-to-noise imbalance permeates the ranks of corporate decision makers.
“It applies across the c-suite, across industry verticals, across every size and type of organization,” says Ed Keller, Chief Marketing Officer at Navigant. “Everybody is overwhelmed with content.”
And for professional-services marketers like Keller, information overload stands as perhaps the greatest obstacle to connecting with clients and prospects. Firms that win business based on their expertise have more avenues than ever before to display that expertise to their target audiences.
But to get their audiences’ attention, firms have to rise above the roaring sea of noise created by the always-on flow of digital information. That requires firms to produce content with real value to their audiences, and to be thoughtful and efficient in the way they deploy resources. It requires a strategy, in other words.
That’s a problem in the legal profession where, according to our survey, only about a quarter of firms have a documented content strategy – despite the fact that 81 percent plan to create more content this year than in 2016. Over in the legal world, the roaring sea is about to get noisier.
Consulting firms have been quicker to adopt new marketing techniques and standards than law firms, generally speaking. But marketers at consulting shops face many of the same challenges that bedevil their legal counterparts.
Producing quality content at scale is hard to do at any professional services firm. Law firm marketers who responded to our survey identified lack of engagement from attorneys as their biggest problem, followed by a lack of staff time. Without engagement from the principals, no firm can hope to consistently produce thought leadership that resonates with important constituencies.
The lack of engagement stems in part from the simple reality that professionals who bill by the hour for client work are, and will always be, hard-pressed to divert time to non-billable activities, even those that could generate more work. And even among those who do make the time, there’s often a misperception of how content marketing works. The idea that content won’t resonate unless it has value for an audience is not intuitive for many business advisors. And the idea of giving away insights for marketing purposes can be hard to swallow for consultants who are used to charging large sums for their advice.
Navigant’s Keller says the way to overcome those challenges is to identify the consultants who are willing to participate, who understand what effective content should look like, and focus on helping them secure business or leads.
“Revenue is the language that everyone speaks,” he says. “If we can produce a case study that shows we won a piece of business through a particular marketing tactic, we’ll get a lot further than if we’re just talking about branding and awareness.”
The barriers to creating documented, firm-wide content strategies are also consistent across the legal and consulting industries. Professional services firms are, with a few exceptions, collections of niche businesses – practice groups, industry teams, service lines – that each serve different clientele with different information needs and consumption patterns. A content strategy that’s effective for the automotive group might be useless for the technology practice.
The level of engagement with marketing efforts also varies among practice groups, as does the practitioners’ appetite for marketing investment. That’s why some professional-services marketers find firm-wide content strategies less valuable than discrete marketing plans tailored to the needs and goals of particular business units.
“Strategy for us will most likely come at an industry sector or practice area level,” Hogan Lovells Global Head of Communications Chris Hinze told us in an interview. “You need to look at what content is relevant to the individual general counsel and their other team members, who may have specialist roles, and make sure what you’re producing is targeted to the right people.”
The other school of thought is that, while marketers must conform to the heterogeneous character of a professional services firm, an overarching content strategy creates a foundation on which to build a coherent firm brand.
Navigant’s Keller takes that view. Last year he hired a content strategist who led the articulation of a firm-wide content strategy. It serves as a publishing roadmap for the firm’s four business units – identifying target audiences and subject matter based on target-market issues, then proceeding with an editorial plan.
“It’s very hard to find common denominators among diverse business units,” Keller says. “So we start with an overarching strategy and tweak it as we deploy with each group.”
The truth is, there’s no universally correct approach to content strategy. Just as practice groups within a firm often have little in common, no two consulting firms are alike either. But there are certain principles that can inform any content strategy. They are:
But whatever shape a content strategy takes, and whether it’s aimed at the practice-group level, the enterprise level or both, the point is to make the effort to carefully chart a course for your content. If you don’t, chances are you’ll join the noisy chorus of firms vying unsuccessfully for executives’ attention. If you do, you’ll gain a step on those firms, and give yourself a chance to rise above the noise.
Brandon Copple is Director of Content & Editorial Strategy at Greentarget, a Public Relations firm focused on business-to-business organizations.