This report presents our the findings of research our organizations conducted this spring on how consulting firms are using social media to market their expertise, and how buyers of their services use social media to find consulting expertise. This is our second annual study on this topic.
A Research Report by Bloom Group LLC, BlissPR, the Association of Management Consulting Firms (AMCF) and ResearchNow
This report presents our the findings of research our organizations conducted this spring on how consulting firms are using social media to market their expertise, and how buyers of their services use social media to find consulting expertise. This is our second annual study on this topic.
Managers with key roles in the purchase of consulting services are being influenced by social media, although in some unexpected ways. Some 40% said they decided not to use a consulting firm after seeing it criticized in a social media channel that they follow. (See Exhibit 2)
To develop thought leadership content, consulting firms are finding social media such as LinkedIn discussion groups, Twitter discussion threads, and Facebook fan pages provide a good way to quickly and inexpensively gather relevant data. However, most firms still rely almost exclusively on traditional content development techniques such as secondary research, internal meetings, best practice research and quantitative surveys. (See Exhibit 4)
Although social media will account for 16% of the thought leadership marketing budget this year, it is expected to grow quickly and command 26% of the budget by 2013. Offline marketing approaches such as marketing events, print publications, and conference speaking are not going away soon. (See Exhibit 6)
The most popular social media marketing tools for consulting firms are pages they created on public social networking sites, Twitter, and discussion groups in public social networks such as LinkedIn. The majority of consulting firms use those social media sites. Consulting firms are largely staying away from creating gated online client communities, as well as presentation-sharing sites, threaded discussion forums, and photo-sharing sites. (See Exhibit 7)
As marketing tools, most social media trail more traditional online and offline marketing channels in generating market awareness and leads. In fact, offline marketing channels (presenting at external conferences, placing consultant-bylined articles in external print publications, and running seminars and other marketing events) remain the three most effective content marketing activities. Only two social media channels finished in the top 10 in terms of marketing effectiveness: microsites and gated online client communities. (See Exhibit 10)
Consulting firms with the most effective thought leadership marketing are far more likely to use social media than the firms with the least effective marketing – especially microsites, videos on YouTube and other video-sharing sites, and comments in LinkedIn discussion groups Facebook fan pages. (See Exhibit 11)
The roots of this study go back to the spring of 2010, when three of our organizations launched our first survey of social media marketing in North American consulting firms. In that study, Bloom Group, BlissPR and AMCF wanted to shed light on an issue of increasing interest to the industry: how consulting firms were using social media to market their expertise. Were social media tools, which allow Web viewers not just to sit back as supplicant readers but to engage in online discussions, a key element of their thought leadership marketing mix? How many were using public social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn? Did they find blogs and microblogging services such as Twitter, and video and presentation sharing sites such as YouTube and Slideshare, effective in creating awareness of their services and generating leads? Was social media displacing more traditional marketing tools?
The results of that study (“Thought Leadership Rewired,” which you can find here) were unambiguous: Social media had found its way into the consulting marketing mix. However, it wasn’t ready to displace “offline” marketing activities such as seminars, print publications, and books – or older online techniques such as white paper downloads on websites. The study was met with a groundswell of interest from consulting firms. By July 2011, the online report had been clicked on more than 12,000 times.
But last year’s study left us with many unanswered questions:
One year later, are more consulting firms using social media, and are they becoming more proficient with these tools to boost awareness and generate leads for their services? What about specific social media tools: Is LinkedIn becoming more popular among consulting firms than Facebook? Is YouTube growing in effectiveness and importance? Is Twitter catching on?
Are consulting firms using social media not only to market their ideas but also to help develop those ideas in the first place? That is, are social media tools valuable in creating content for thought leadership marketing campaigns? We asked this question because the concept of “crowdsourcing” has caught on in many other industries – getting people (employees and people outside an organization) to use online social networks to brainstorm solutions ranging from concepts for advertising campaigns to new product and process improvement ideas. We wanted to know whether consulting firms are social media to crowdsource their intellectual capital – i.e., the ideas about how to solve business problems that they ultimately market through articles, books, presentations, blog posts and other channels. Are they using Twitter, LinkedIn discussion groups, Facebook fan pages or other social media to nurture breakthrough consulting ideas?
Are buyers of consulting services taking notice of what consultancies are doing with social media? Are they using social media to find consulting expertise and create their short list of potential advisers? If so, which social media are they using? And how helpful is social media for identifying and winnowing the number of consulting firms they consider?
To get an outside-in view on whether social media should be important to consulting firm marketers, we begin our discussion of the 2011 research results with the “voice of the customer” findings. We then delve into how consulting firms are using social media to create content – i.e., to develop thought leadership-type material to use in their marketing programs (social media and other).We follow that with findings on how consulting firms are using social media to market their expertise.
We conclude the report with our assessment on what these results mean for consulting firms, and what actions we believe they need to take with social media to improve their marketing and manage their brand reputations.
The View from the Client: How Buyers Use Social Media to Find Consulting Expertise
Should consulting firms aggressively use social media in their marketing programs? We wanted to answer this question by starting with the customer. If the companies that hire consultants don’t use social media to find and learn about these firms, it won’t matter how consulting firm marketers use social media “to get the word out”; their clients aren’t noticing.
So with that in mind, we worked with ResearchNow, a firm that conducts surveys and other research with executives and managers in organizations around the world, to create an online survey.
Traditional Ways of Finding Consultants Still Rule (But Social Media Tools are Being Used)
We first wanted to understand whether social networking tools were important to organizations that seek out consulting expertise. ResearchNow asked 200 managers (all of whom said they either gather information on consulting firms and/or participate in the decision process) to rate on a scale of 1-10 (1=not at all important, 10=very important) the value of more than a dozen ways in which they may look for external consulting expertise. Of the seven methods rated of greatest importance, none is a social media tool, and four are traditional “thought leadership” channels:
By far the two most important ways of finding consulting firms are contacting people inside (7.10) and outside (6.75) their firms. So directly getting information from people whom they trust trumps all.
The next two methods are taking in consultants’ presentations at public conferences (5.74), and reading consultants’ online publications (5.32). Apparently, in looking for expertise, buyers of consulting firms prefer reading more substantive forms of content than they do using social media.
Also rated more important than social media are putting key words into online search engines (5.19), reading consultants’ quotes in leading business/trade publications (5.17), and reading the print publications of consulting firms (5.09).
However, we were surprised that the eighth most important way of finding consulting firms ranked as high as it did: visiting websites that provide opinions about consulting firms from their own employees (websites such as Glassdoor.com and Vault.com). (Note: Both sites offer reviews and other information on a number of sectors in addition to consulting.) This technique received an average importance rating of 5.04, just slightly behind reading consulting firms’ print publications. And it is rated higher in average importance than attending consulting firm seminars (4.89) and webinars (4.74).
Three other social media tools are at the bottom of the ratings:
Reading consulting firms’ blogs (3.87)
Posting questions in public social networking sites such as LinkedIn’s discussion groups and Facebook (3.85)
Posting questions on Twitter and other “micro-blogging” websites (3.18)
Exhibit 1: How important are the following sources in searching for a consulting firm? (1=not at all important, 10=very important)
LinkedIn is Top Social Media Tool for Sizing Up Consulting Firms
Another question helped us get more specifics about the value of certain popular social networking sites: LinkedIn, Facebook, Glassdoor.com, and Vault.com in particular. We asked our 200 respondents to rate on a scale of 1-10 (1= not at all helpful; 10 = very helpful) the value of each tool plus one other: private social networks such as online communities run by a trade or professional association. The result: Not one of these social tools is rated even halfway on the scale of helpfulness; all have average ratings of less than 5.0:
Private online social networks (4.15)
Websites with employee comments (other than Glassdoor.com and Vault.com) (2.98)
Why is the clear winner on this list LinkedIn, and Twitter the loser? And why does Glassdoor.com and Vault.com finish lower than their category is rated on the importance scale of 1-10 in the survey question that preceded this question? We’re not sure. Perhaps when asked about specific social networks (vs. their larger category), fewer managers know about them.
Does it Matter When Consulting Firms are Criticized in Social Media? For Many, Yes
One of the critical ways in which social media is different than traditional online or print media is that the conversations aren’t one-way, i.e., from author to audience. As we know, social media is participatory: Your “audience” can become authors, and your audience members can communicate with other audience members. For consulting firms, one of the risks of social media is that their target audience criticizes them in a public forum.
Knowing that sites like Glassdoor.com and Vault.com generate many negative comments about employers from employees, and that criticisms of consulting firms can go viral through Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and other social media, we wanted to understand whether clients of consulting firms took notice of such comments. More important, we wanted to understand whether such negative remarks about a consulting firm influenced their decision to use the firm.
Their responses were striking. About 40% of the 200 managers say they do not use a consulting firm after hearing it criticized in their online social networks (public or private). We were surprised the number was so high.
Exhibit 2: Have you ever decided not to use a consulting firm after hearing it mentioned negatively by someone or several people in your online social networks (both public like LinkedIn and private)?
So what should consulting firms do about this? Buyers’ responses to another survey question indicate that perhaps consulting firms can’t do much about it today. We asked managers whether they had a more favorable impression of a consulting firm that actively uses social media. The majority – 58% -- say it would improve their impression only to a small degree or not at all. Only 9% say a consulting firm that actively uses social media would boost their impression of that firm to a high or very high degree. And about a third say it would improve their impression by a moderate degree.
Given that data, it is probably no surprise that only 11% say they would ever rule out buying services from a consulting firm that wasn’t savvy about social media. Some 79% say a consulting firm’s active use of social media would have no impact on their purchasing decision, while 10% say “maybe” (depending on what kind of consulting firm it was – e.g., a social media consultant, we presume).
Buyers See Social Media Tools Becoming More Important to Finding Consulting Firms in the Future
Despite social media not being most important or most helpful ways for managers look for consultants today, the 200 people polled believe that will change over the next three years. More than half (57%) say social media will become more important to finding and evaluating consulting firms. Only 6% see it becoming less important, and 37% believe its importance won’t change.
Q: “Over the next 3 years, will social media become more or less important to your firm as a means for finding and evaluating consulting firms?”
Exhibit 3: Importance of social media to buyers of consulting services in finding and evaluating them over the next three years
In the next two sections, we discuss the findings of our survey of consulting firms. First, we explain how they are using social media to create content for their marketing programs – specifically “thought leadership” content. Then in the next section, we review how they are using social media to market that content, comparing the effectiveness of social media with other marketing channels.
The View from the Consultants: How They Use Social Media to Development Thought Leadership Content
We asked our consulting firm respondents how they develop the content they use in their marketing programs. By “develop,” we refer to ways that they generate the insights, perspectives and examples they use to educate their audiences about some problem in the business world and how to optimally solve it. In this question, we asked them to tell us about their experiences with 14 techniques for creating content:
Whether they use them to develop content (whether with social media or other approaches)
The effectiveness of the techniques that they use (“effectiveness” defined simply as their ability to produce compelling content). In other words, we asked them to rate the quality of their content, on a scale of 1 to 5, from not at all effective to extremely effective
In Developing Thoughtful Content, Consulting Firms Still Rely on Traditional Techniques
Social media tools today take a back seat to traditional approaches to developing thought leadership content. The most frequently used techniques have nothing to do with social media:
Secondary research (88%)
Consultants meeting on company time to capture their field experience (81%)
Best-practice case study research (81%)
Quantitative surveys (75%)
Consultants capturing their ideas outside of work hours (74%)
Marketing professionals capturing consultants’ ideas (71%)
The eight social media tools that provided in this question all are used by less than 70% of the consulting firms – from very little use (13% using threaded discussion websites such as Quora and Focus.com) to frequent use (68% using LinkedIn discussion groups ).
Twitter and Facebook are used by a little more than half the consulting firms as a content-creation tool. Intranet discussion forums were used by 49%, and their close cousin, internal wikis, are used by about one third (35%). Very few consulting firms are using gated online communities to develop content – only 24%. And only 37% are creating content through publicly viewable microsites.
Exhibit 4: How does your firm develop content for thought leadership marketing campaigns?
Consulting Firms Don’t View Most Social Media Tools as Effective for Generating Compelling Content
Consulting firms not only use social media tools less frequently than other tools for developing content, they also find mind of these tools less effective at creating compelling content.
The three most effective content development tools are:
Quantitative surveys (online and offline), rated 3.84 on our 1-5 scale of effectiveness
Consultants capturing their own ideas on company time, rated 3.44
Qualitative, best-practice case study research (where a consulting firm typically studies organizations that are exemplary on some issue), rated 3.39
The bottom half of our list of content development techniques (i.e., those rated least effective) are all social media tools: Facebook fan pages (rated the worst, at 1.77), Twitter discussion threads (2.18), LinkedIn discussion groups (2.24), internal wikis (2.40), discussion forums on company intranets (2.43), threaded discussion websites (available to the public) (2.67), and consultants’ microsites devoted to a topic (2.96).
We must note that one social media tool is rated high in relative effectiveness for developing thought-leading content: gated online communities that consulting firms host for their clients. (Balanced Scorecard consultancy Palladium Group has one such gated community for clients.) Such closed online communities are rated the fourth most effective tool (at 3.35).
Why did this turn out to be the case? It may be because consulting firms can limit access to these online communities to only their clients. Given that communication in the community is protected from going outside the community, perhaps clients of consulting firms are more willing to share their experiences with a consulting firm and other community members. When clients are more willing to share their experiences, the consulting firm hosting the online community can more easily find companies to study on any issue (best practice and others), and thus have an ability to provide greater insights on based on real-world experiences. That, in turn, can lead to better ideas.
Exhibit 5: The effectiveness of content develop techniques
How Consulting Firms Use Social Media to Market Their Expertise
We devoted most of the 16 questions in our survey of consulting firms to how they were using social media to market their content, and the effectiveness of those tools. What we found was that social media is still just starting to catch on in consulting firms, but that some are using it aggressively and successfully.
Social Media is Still a Small Part of the Consulting Marketing Budget, But Is Expected to Grow
Is social media marketing overtaking more traditional forms of marketing of consulting services? Hardly. We asked respondents to estimate how much of their thought leadership marketing budget they devote to social media vs. two other large categories of marketing: “offline” (seminars, print publications, books, etc.) and “traditional online” (white papers found in electronic form on consulting websites, webinars, etc.). We asked them for estimates for two time periods: this year, and two years from now.
This year, spending on offline marketing will still command the largest share of the thought leadership marketing budget (43%), with traditional online marketing close behind (41%). In contrast, spending on social media is only 16% of the pie. (But we must note that that spending has increased steadily in the last six years. In last year’s survey – which polled a largely different set of consulting firms – social media was estimated to have been only 5% of the thought leadership marketing budget in 2005.)
Exhibit 6: Thought leadership marketing budget allocations (2011 and 2013)
Asked to project their thought leadership marketing budget of 2013, the consulting firms we surveyed say social media would command a larger share than it does today, but still not the largest share: 26% vs. 40% for traditional online marketing and 34% for offline marketing. Yet the message is clear: Online thought leadership marketing (social media + traditional online) overshadows offline marketing today, and will do so even more by 2013, which offline marketing will carve out only about one-third of the thought leadership marketing budget. That’s because the consulting firms we polled predict offline marketing losing ground to social media marketing. Even traditional online marketing is predicted to overtake spending on offline marketing in two years.
Consultants’ Social Media Favorites: Their Pages on Public Social Networks and Twitter
So what types of social media marketing tools do consulting firms use? The most frequently mentioned tool is a consulting firm’s pages on public social networking sites (74% of consulting firms use them). The second most common tool is Twitter (by 62%). Getting involved in discussion groups (launched by others external to their firm) is the third most popular social tool, by 55%. Three other tools are used by 45% to 49% of the firms we surveyed: blogs, video sites (such as YouTube and Vimeo) and microsites.
The least popular social media marketing tools are used by no more than a third of the firms:
Gated online communities (33%)
Slideshare, a website to put public presentations (21%)
Threaded discussion sites (e.g., Quora and Focus.com) (17%)
Sites for posting photographs (such as Flickr) (7%)
The current low usage of these tools shouldn’t blind consulting firms to their potential marketing value. Popular photo, presentation and video sites can help consulting firms gain attention to their webinars, seminars and other events. Posting videos of a marketing event on YouTube, for example, can be a good way to increase the number of people who find your event when entering search terms related to that event. (Note: Google owns YouTube, and so it’s no surprise that the search engine highly values YouTube videos in its search engine rankings.)
Our data show that the consulting firms we surveyed are focusing on the large public social networks: Facebook and LinkedIn fan pages, and Twitter. Most of them, however, haven’t discovered the value of smaller online sites, especially ones they could control: private online communities and microsites devoted to a single topic. We believe the long-term winners will be consulting firms that master these smaller online communities.
Exhibit 7: Which social media does your firm use?
Consulting Firms Use Social Media Largely to Market Content, Not to Test and Refine It
We asked respondents how they used social channels in their marketing programs. Social media differs from traditional online and offline marketing channels in many ways, one of which is the ability to test new content before sharing it with a larger universe of prospects. For example, a consulting firm could share the first draft of a pending white paper with a LinkedIn discussion group or with its Twitter followers, and then get feedback on it before doing a mass-mailing campaign (print and/or email).
But our survey data indicates that most consulting firms aren’t using social media to test and refine their content before they take it to market. For consulting firms that use social media, the clear majority are using it to market content that they’ve deemed to be ready for external distribution. For example, of the 74% of consulting firms that have pages on public social networks, only 18% test their content with such online groups. Only 17% of the 49% with blogs use those them to test and refine content.
Exhibit 8: How does your firm using social media in its marketing programs?
Social Media Not a Daily Habit
We asked consulting firms how frequently they used a number of social media. Of those that use such social media, the minority do not use it daily. For example, only 44% say they create Twitter “tweets” every day, while an even smaller percentage (6%) say they comment in LinkedIn discussion groups daily. Only 4% publish new blog posts daily, while a third say they do so at least once a week.
Exhibit 9: How frequently do you use the following social media? (Percentages based on number of consulting firms using those tools)
Social Media Not as Effective as Traditional Online or Offline Marketing Tools
Beyond understanding what social media tools they use, we wanted to know how effective they were – with effectiveness defined as “their ability to generate market awareness and leads for your services.” We especially wanted to know how effective social media tools were compared with traditional online and offline thought leadership marketing tools. (We used a scale of 1-5, with 1= not at all effective, 3= moderately effective, and 5= extremely effective.)
What we found was that social media tools are not viewed as the most effective ones. The three most effective thought leadership marketing tools are:
Consultants’ presentations at external conferences (3.83)
Consultant-bylined articles placed in external print publications (3.73)
Consulting firm seminars and other in-person marketing events (3.68)
Of course, all three are offline marketing channels. Given that this is the case, we do not see consulting firms abandoning these offline marketing channels in the foreseeable future.
Interestingly, two social media tools – microsites and gated online communities – cracked our top 10 in effectiveness. However, keep in mind that these are used by only a minority of consulting firms (45% use microsites and 33% use their own online gated communities to market their content).
But the consulting firms say two other, more popular, social tools are more than moderately effective at creating awareness and leads:
Writing blogs or guest blog posts in external media
Blogs on consulting firm websites
Less than moderately effective are posting mentions of firm content on social networking sites – both the pages that a consulting firm controls (e.g., its own Facebook fan page), and posting questions on threaded discussion sites (e.g., Quora), tweeting, placing videos on public video sites, and posting photos of events on Flickr.
Exhibit 10: How effective are these social media marketing tools for your firm?
What Works? Snippets of Social Media Successes
In an open-ended question, we asked consulting firms to tell us the single most beneficial change in the way they used social media in the last 12 months, and why it was beneficial. Their answers are revealing, some of which were:
Getting more out of firm seminars and other marketing events:
“We've integrated social media into our pre-event and post-event planning and promotion. Our use of social media to reach a targeted audience has allowed us to maintain contact with event participants in advance and to keep the conversation going after an event.”
“Used Twitter to communicate insights from company-sponsored events, extending the reach and longevity of the events and giving them more impact”
“We’ve created and used groups on LinkedIn to develop a network of strategic targets. It’s been beneficial to developing our webinar and hosted event attendance.”
Reaching a broader set of prospective clients through social tools such as Twitter
“Reaching a more diverse audience and more industries”
“We have begun using Twitter regularly, which has grown our community of followers and has helped us see more opportunities for future social media use.”
“The firm has actively engaged in tweeting press release, white papers, surveys and other thought leadership material. Our activity has resulted in a variety of inquiries around firm services, some leading to additional revenue.”
Better use of LinkedIn to maintain client relationships and improve rankings in search engines
“Expanded use of LinkedIn that includes both an enterprise and personal approach to using the network. This connects clients and contacts on multiple levels with our organization. It makes it easier for our people to stay in touch with the contacts, but also reduces the pain of transitioning clients when someone leaves”
“Alignment of content on LinkedIn pages with website in order to improve search engine optimization. It has increased the visibility of our website, which now appears as the first item or on the first page on search engines for each of our key search words. We’ve received 6+ client inquiries, requests for information or proposals within the first three months of implementation – directly resulting from finding us on the Web.”
Developing thought leadership content
“We see social media as a key component of our R&D, thought leadership and knowledge management activities – in other words, to create, market and apply knowledge for competitive advantage. We listen more than we talk on social media, but we have also created a platform for our community, which integrates an annual conference a LinkedIn group, Twitter, Facebook and a blog with guest posts and online videos a la the TED (conference).”
Leveraging Social Media: What the Best Consulting Firm Marketers Do
So are consulting firms that are better at thought leadership marketing using social media more aggressively and differently than consulting firms that struggle with thought leadership marketing? To try to answer this question, we compared survey respondents at two opposite ends of the marketing effectiveness spectrum:
“Leaders” – i.e., consulting firms that said their content marketing activities were highly or extremely effective (22 in all)
“Laggards” – consulting firms whose content marketing activities were not at all or slightly effective (13 in all)
We first wanted a less subjective determination that leaders had more effective marketing than laggards. It turned at that nearly half the leaders (48%) generate at least leads/month through content marketing; in contrast, none of the laggards generate 30 or more leads/month, with 73% generating only 0-10 leads/month. Using the midway point between the ranges of options we offered in this question, the average leads/month for leaders is 46. The average leads/month for laggards is 8.
Comparing the responses of leaders to laggards on several other questions showed a number of differences:
Leaders are predominantly strategy consulting firms (62%), while only 31% of laggards were strategy firms and 31% were operations consulting firms. This was no surprise to us: Content generation is a major part of what strategy consulting firms do; it’s baked into how they sell and deliver their services. Some 38% of leaders had revenue of more than $500 million, while 10 of the 11 laggards had revenue of $100 million or less. Leaders are also far more likely to spend much more on content marketing than laggards. Nearly 40% of the leaders spend at least $1 million a year on it (with three spending between $20 million and $50 million; none of the laggards spend more than $1 million a year on it. In fact, seven of the 11 laggards spend less than $100,000 annually on content marketing. What this says to us is that larger consulting firms have bigger marketing budgets and can afford to experiment with social media marketing.
Leaders are far more likely to use different types of social media than laggards. In most categories of social media that we surveyed, a much higher percentage of leaders use them than do laggards. For example, leaders are more than twice as likely as laggards to have Facebook fan pages, comment in LinkedIn discussion groups, post videos on YouTube and other video sites, and offer microsites on topics. They are also far more likely to use blogs, Twitter, threaded discussion sites, and online client communities.
Exhibit 11: Do you use the following social media to market your content?
Leaders this year are devoting a slightly higher percentage of their thought leadership marketing budgets to social media than laggards (19% vs. 16%), and a lower percentage for traditional online marketing. Ironically, for 2013, leaders are projecting that a smaller percentage of their content marketing budget will go for social media marketing (26%) vs. laggards (32%). And leaders say they will devote a much higher proportion of their marketing budgets in 2013 to offline marketing than laggards indicate – 39% vs. 29%.
Exhibit 12: Differences in budget allocations between thought leadership marketing leaders and laggards
Key Barriers to Leveraging Social Media: Committing Time and Producing Content
One of our last questions asked respondents to rate the key barriers in using social media effectively in thought leadership marketing. We presented a number of barriers and asked respondents to rate them on a scale of 1 to 5 (1= not at all a barrier, 3= moderate barrier, 5= extremely high barrier). It turned out that only two barriers were rated on average to be more than moderate:
Committing enough time to social media marketing (3.31)
The ability to refresh content regularly (3.07). That suggest that consulting firms are finding it hard to keep up with the pace of social media – of creating a “content engine” to feed the social media beast.
All other barriers received average ratings of being less than moderate barriers – ratings very similar to what we found in last year’s survey.
Exhibit 13: To what extent are the following barriers to use social media effectively in your thought leadership marketing campaigns? (Scale of 1 to 5, 1=not at all a barrier, 5=extreme barrier)
Implications: Time for Consulting Firms to Get Serious With Social Media, But Not Abandon More Traditional Thought Leadership Marketing Channels
Whether they like it or not, consulting firms must get used to this reality: Many clients are using social media today to find experts and assess their value. That is not likely to diminish. As younger executives who have become quite dependent on their online social networks rise through the ranks, they should be expected to compare notes on consulting firms with others who have used them.
The question then becomes, “How can social media help a consulting firm protect and enhance its reputation?” We think it’s become critical for consulting firms to become active in the social media channels where their clients and prospects show up, whether in LinkedIn groups, Facebook fan pages, Twitter or Quora discussion threads, or some other website. We suggest they not only monitor what’s being said and be quick to address negative mentions of their firm, but that they also play offense as well: Start discussions on issues they believe will be of interest to clients and prospects.
Social media gives consulting firms unprecedented opportunities to inject themselves in serious conversations with prospective clients – ones in which prospects are looking for experts’ opinions. Consulting firms with strong content assets – substantive white papers to link to, articles in prestigious industry publications (especially their online versions), presentations in electronic form, online videos, and the like – have a tremendous advantage in the social media space. Great and abundant thought leadership content gives consulting firms a significant advantage in socializing online. Competitors lacking such content can’t easily impress prospects in social media discussions or direct conversations their way by linking to compelling content on their own websites.
But our study shows that it’s important to keep social media in perspective: that offline and traditional online marketing channels still matter. In fact, they remain more effective awareness builders and lead generators than social media. We believe the issue is not whether social media can replace such staples of the thought leadership marketing mix as PR outreach, seminars, articles in prestigious management journals, and the rest. The issue is how to use social media with traditional online and offline channels to get more prospects to a consulting firm’s marketing events, to read the articles it’s placed in Harvard Business Review or another management journal, or review the articles in their own publications.
Social media also largely has been kept on the sidelines in developing the content that fuels thought leadership marketing programs. We think consulting firms should aggressively explore social media as a content development tool. Social media holds significant promise in several pieces of the content development process – especially in helping consulting firms identify “best practice” companies that are worthy of being studied, and (even earlier in the process) of testing whether a topic is worthy of a study in the first place. Consulting firms that do this may see their thought leadership programs producing more insights on more on-target issues.
Our leaders and laggards data shows that consulting firms must begin to determine how to overcome the two biggest hurdles to leveraging social media: devoting sufficient time to it and creating a continual stream of strong content. Our evidence suggests that far more market attention and leads await consulting firms that can overcome those barriers.
This research report was authored by Robert Buday/Bloom Group LLC (firstname.lastname@example.org); Cortney Stapleton/BlissPR (email@example.com); John Furth/AMCF (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Alex Kurian/ResearchNow (email@example.com).