Monday, October 11, 2010

Mastering Marketing Messages

Most marketing in our business shares a fundamental flaw: It's self-centered instead of client-centered. The problem persists because most marketers (and their bosses) seem to think that marketing by definition is about self-promotion. But more accurately, it's about attracting attention and creating impressions.

Impressions of distinctiveness being the ultimate goal.

Which leads me to the second big problem with most marketing--it's so been there, done that. In other words, hardly distinctive. To test this premise, just visit your competitors' web sites. Anything noteworthy out there? Anything that convincingly communicates, "We're different, really"?

If you've followed this blog you know my basic philosophy of both marketing and sales is to
serve the client. Because a service-centered approach to business development is so rare, and so appreciated by clients, I believe it's the best way to distinguish your firm. I've written about this in previous posts ("Marketing for Leads," "Marketing Your Intellectual Capital").

However, there's obviously a time and place for focusing the message on yourself. In making hiring decisions, clients routinely ask about your firm. They want to know about your experience. Your capabilities. Your people. So some proportion of your marketing effort should be devoted to communicating to clients what your firm is all about.

That's what this post is about. I'd like to suggest some strategies you can apply to strengthen your marketing messages and avoid the pitfalls that make most such content boring and ineffective:

Have an out-of-the-body experience.
Well, not literally (unless you know how to do that). My point is that you need to try to prepare marketing content from the audience's perspective. What makes most marketing seem self-centered isn't just the fact that it's self-promotion. It's that so little of it connects with the interests, needs, and priorities of the intended audience. If you're going to brag about yourself, at least make it interesting and relevant to the client. A third-party reviewer can help you in this regard--if not a client, at least someone outside your firm.

Emphasize benefits not features.
I hesitate to include this point because you've heard it many times before. But if benefits selling has been hammered into our consciousness, it's not all that evident in most of the marketing content I see. Take how we write about our project experience, for example. The majority of project write-ups describe only what was done, not what was accomplished. Tasks completed versus goals achieved or
value delivered.

This problem originates outside the marketing department. When I've asked project managers to tell me how they added value, most have been rather stumped. The most common response has been some variant of, "Well, we did what we were asked to do." Fine, then. That means the client could have hired any of your competitors and gotten the same result. Perhaps that's reality, but it's not a very compelling marketing message.

Don't ignore the customer experience. Clients don't just hire you for your expertise; they pay for a positive experience. That's the essence of service. Is this important to clients? You betcha. The research bears this out, but you don't need the studies. Just consider the times your firm has gotten crosswise with a client. Was it related to your expertise or the customer experience?

So where is the customer experience in your marketing? This is created in two primary ways. The first is what the client experiences through your marketing efforts. That's one reason service-centered marketing works; it creates positive experiences that position you for the sale. The second way is describing how you deliver (or have delivered) great customer experiences. You have to be specific about it for this to be effective. In other words, describe the process by which you ensure exceptional service. Which leads to my next point...

Avoid unsubstantiated claims. Most marketing content is full of this. "We provide unparalleled service to our clients," or "Our project delivery system consistently delivers on-time performance." Where's the proof? Without proof, it's perceived as just hype--even if by chance it's true.

Ah, and there's the rub. We don't offer proof because either it doesn't exist or the statement is not really true. Or most often, it's somewhere in between. Most A/E firms don't do a good job tracking the metrics that might be of interest to clients: On-time performance, estimate-to-actual-cost comparisons, frequency of design-related change orders, documented cost savings, etc. So the tendency is to say we excel at those things even though we have little to no evidence that we do.

If you want to stand out, make distinctive claims about the benefits you deliver to clients--and be able to back it up! Again, check your competitors' web sites and see how often they make unsubstantiated claims. Do you see an opportunity?

Reveal the soul of your firm. What really distinguishes your firm? Is it not your people, your culture, your values, your passions? Most marketing is too antiseptic to capture a sense of what the firm is truly like. Unfortunately that misses the characteristic that should most make your firm attractive. It's not simply what do you do or have done, but who you are--and by extension, what it's like to work with you.

One web site that illustrates this approach well belongs to the architectural firm The Preston Partnership. From its informal design to its description of the firm's culture and values, this site conveys a picture of a different kind of firm. Moreover, it seems like a good firm to work with, whether as a client or an employee. I know nothing of the firm beyond its web site, so I can't vouch for the accuracy of the marketing message. But at the basic level of creating an impression of distinction, it is effective.

Make it user-friendly. I'm surprised at the propensity of marketing professionals--supposedly skilled at communication--to create marketing pieces that require minutes of reading to get to the core message. Sometimes their firms have spent many thousands of dollars on these. Do they really believe clients take the time to read them?

Let's try another out-of-the-body experience. This time look beyond the content (Is this even remotely interesting?) and consider the presentation. No, I'm not primarily concerned with how it looks. I'd like for you to consider how it works. Does it communicate at the skim level? Are the core messages evident at a glance? Have you presented your proofs (see above) graphically? Is it easy to navigate?

There's obviously much more involved in creating effective marketing content. But hopefully these points give you something to mull over. Want to discuss this in more detail? Give me a holler.

1 comment:

Mel Lester said...

P.S. Since I wrote this post, the Preston Partnership, whose website impressed me for its distinctiveness, has updated its website. And, yes, you guessed it, it now looks more like most architectural firms. Ah, I guess it gets lonely being different.