Lack of focus, message can kill plan was previously published in The Bottom Line, Mid-September 2014.
Considering the chances of failure for marketing plans — 50 to 75 per cent of the time by some estimates — firms could be excused for thinking it looks a bit more like a gambler’s game than a business decision.
So, how can accounting firms beat the odds of low marketing return? Three steps: avoid the most common mistakes, accurately assess performance and revitalize the plan.
The first step is to avoid the nine most common marketing mistakes.
No research – Most accounting firms develop their marketing plan and materials based on what they know. But what they know is limited to their existing client base. It doesn’t include current and deep knowledge about the business environment, competition or desired growth market. As a result, the chance of popping from the clutter and really connecting with the bull’s eye target is equally limited.
No point of difference – Resistance to declaring difference or focusing on a narrow area of interest is widespread throughout the sector. While it may feel safer not to stray too far from the flock or zero in on any niche areas or services, not doing so makes it enormously difficult for the target market to feel understood and catered to.
No focus – While some firms may simply not be doing enough marketing, often the problem is that the firm is experimenting with too many marketing activities. A scattered marketing plan has accountants spreading their resources too thin to be effective – whether it’s time that’s spread across speaking gigs, different social media sites and networking or dollars that are spread across print ads, direct mail and event marketing. Without frequency, consistency and intense focus on a specific target audience, marketing doesn’t stand a chance of being noticed.
No message – Translating a point of difference into a message is an art. It requires talent and training in marketing, copywriting and graphic design. Without a creative and compelling message easily accessible to the marketplace, even the greatest point of difference isn’t any better than a well kept secret.
No consistency – From logo to elevator pitch, website and LinkedIn postings, anytime there’s a break in consistency marketing equity is lost. If the target market doesn’t recognize a familiar tone and message ringing through all marketing efforts, then the firm will be hard pressed to build recognition and profile.
No continuity – Point of difference is great, as is focus. But even when both are working like a charm, there’s still the issue of ensuring that marketing activities are strategically selected to reinforce each other eg a speaking engagement followed by a live Twitter Q&A, blog summary or LinkedIn group discussion is far more likely to be memorable, to encourage website visits and to encourage connections.
No support – When accountants lack the skills and the confidence to write articles, to deliver seminars, to be on video and to network, the personal portion of the marketing plan is in jeopardy. Coaching can help to alleviate such concerns and, in the process, drive up quality control, motivation and commitment.
No sales strategy – Marketing and sales are often lumped together as one single discipline. But marketing isn’t sales. It can deliver inquiries, website traffic and an audience at seminars. In order to deliver sales, however, it also requires timely and skilled follow up and relationship building.
No refresh – Just because it worked before doesn’t necessarily mean that it will again. In a fast-paced world, things change and marketing plans need to be adjusted. They should be revisited on an annual basis and at every significant juncture.
Step two is to accurately assess performance.
Define objectives – Targets come before measurements. But objectives come before targets. Without predetermined objectives, marketing can’t even be aimed in the right direction. In order to define objectives, consider what success would look like. Inquiries? Referrals? Media coverage? Loyalty? Web traffic? Resumes? From whom? For what? By when? Does it lead to an increase in awareness? Engagement? Followers? Sales? Profit?
Establish targets – Once marketing objectives are clear, they need to be translated into measurable targets. What are the realistic timeframes and benchmarks for the stated objectives? Are they aligned with the marketing plan, in terms of urgency and scale?
Measure and review – Based on the specific targets established, set up systems and reports to easily measure and review results. Train everyone to ask inquiries, media requests and job seekers how they heard of the firm. Record this information in a shared database. Every time. Set up analytics for all digital activities, including blogs, social media, website and newsletters. If it’s easy, it’ll get done. If it’s a hassle, it won’t.
The third step is to revitalize the plan.
Decide which activities to drop – After defining objectives, target market and point of difference, certain marketing activities will naturally rise to the top. Additionally, in order to avoid setting anyone up for failure, the talents and interests of accountants participating in the personal portion of the marketing plan need to be considered. For example, accountants nervous about public speaking might deliver better results blogging. And those nervous about writing might deliver better results networking, online or off.
Adjust activities that made the cut – Certain marketing activities will be harder to assess than others. If they appear to be a good fit but history presents another picture, explore further. When the activity was run last, had the firm defined its target market? Was there a message? Was it effectively communicated? Could the same activity deliver better results by updating text, graphics and distribution approach? For example, a newsletter that delivered poor return might do better with a facelift, compelling content and a segmentation strategy.
Assess the need to add to the plan – Based on what remains on the list, is there continuity from one activity to the next? Is there a flagship marketing activity that acts as a hub for all the others? Is anything missing to bring it all together?
When marketing isn’t working out, the usual response is to look for a quick fix. If a direct mail program doesn’t result in phone calls, it would normally get cancelled after the first mailing without knowing if the issue was too broad an audience, a weak hook or no follow up. Similarly, if considerable time was invested in blog articles and facebook updates that didn’t generate readership, both projects would soon be abandoned without knowing if the issue was a lack of continuity with the rest of the firm’s marketing or if the updates failed to excite and engage readers.
While the quick fix to cancel a marketing activity may at first feel efficient, placing blame on the wrong issues doesn’t actually solve anything. Neither does pulling the plug too early. So this year, instead of repeating old patterns that don’t improve marketing return, think instead about avoiding common marketing mistakes, accurately assessing performance and revitalizing that marketing plan.
While it may seem like it when the chips are down, marketing is not a game of chance. It’s a game of strategy. And it’s a lot more fun to play, not to mention more profitable, after figuring out how to beat the odds.
About Sandra Bekhor
Consultant to law, accounting, architecture, medical and consulting practices. Connect with me on LinkedIn.
Marketing and Management for Professional Services Firms