There’s no single answer to that question. You need to have access to a wide range of tools, and many touch points, before a prospective client is ready to even consider your firm’s services.
As a non-business example of this, I recently pulled out my home toolbox to make some minor repairs. I lifted screwdrivers, wrenches, pliers and other tools in search of the one I needed to start the work – a tape measure. I know I’ve got one – it just was pretty clearly not in the toolbox. So I had to improvise.
I did eventually find the tape measure in an unexpected place, but this small example brought home to me a business reality – you need a wide range of marketing tools to get your message across. In home repair jobs, the tape measure comes in at the start of the process, and other tools such as paintbrushes are needed more towards the end.
So what tools are needed throughout the task of recruiting new clients for your firm? My colleague Tsavo Neal has put together an amazingly informative post on just this question, “64 proven ways consultants can generate leads online.” I encourage you to see what’s in there for you.
In this post, we’ll dig into the kinds of tools that are most effective at the start of the process, or at the top of the sales funnel.
Is social media the best way to feed the top of the funnel?
The term ‘content marketing’ was coined in the early 2000s and presented as a new thing. It’s not, as we’ll see.
The idea is that if an organization creates genuinely useful content with its ideal clients in mind, they’ll show up, be impressed with the organization’s insights, and it’s a short step from the organization being a trusted source of information, to a trusted vendor.
Right from the start, content marketing had a focus on the online world. Its success depends on three critical factors.
1. Effective search engine optimization (SEO)
The first factor for success in traditional content marketing is making it so that the content would come up in online searches. Someone looking for information on an issue would plug the right search terms into an engine such as Google, and they would come across content produced by your firm.
This has become problematic – there is so much competition to be at the top, towards the top or even on the first page of a Google search screen. Many organizations are willing and able to pay for better listings. Search results have become so skewed that I typically ignore the first three or four listings on a page of search results.
So, unless you can come up with some truly unique search terms, particularly about new developments affecting your clients, it’s hard to show up in online searches. I’ve talked about how you can use “newsjacking” as a way to get your content in front of more prospects, in a video you can see here.
I took the contrarian view on the value of SEO in Post #20, arguing that showing up in online searches can be a bad thing for professional firms.
A big part of effective SEO is having a website that looks credible so that someone will be willing to stay around long enough to understand what your firm is about. Jann Chambers of UK Web Host Review has a useful infographic that talks about that, here.
2. Good use of social media
Another way to push content into the hands of people who might be interested is through social media – mostly Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Those readers who know me well will know of my aversion to Facebook, but it actually can be a good tool for business, as my coach Heather Prestanski points out in Post #77.
One of my frustrations in building my business on social media is that it’s hard to get anyone’s attention given the flood of other people also wanting to reach their markets through social. I find a large amount of the content flowing through my Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook feed is sponsored. That is, something I didn’t ask for.
Heather says that success in social media marketing involves two success factors. One is time – the time it takes to write posts, tweets, retweet so others will do the same for your tweets, and think up new and interesting ways to present your ideas. The other involves money – paying someone else to put in that time, or paying for advertising space in the feeds of potential clients.
If you’re not prepared to spend large amounts of money and time to create good content and promote it, you likely won’t get much bounce from social media.
3. Email marketing
The third leg of the stool is email marketing, which involves creating an effective program of new ideas and content that will induce someone to click on your message.
Heather tells me that if a list gets a 20 to 30 percent ‘open’ rate, and it might get about 1.5% clickthrough, which means that out of a 1000-person list, only about four or five people will actually see your message. And just because they opened it, doesn’t mean that they read it. And it also doesn’t mean that they’ll ‘convert,’ which is content-marketing speak for buying whatever it is you’re selling.
You probably get a lot of email you don’t open, even if the subject line is attractive. I find myself unsubscribing from a lot of email lists these days.
An audience for your blog or website
The whole purpose of the SEO, social media and email is to get people to come and visit you – online, that is it. This means that they come to your website because it’s a place where they’ve found that they will get useful information. As well as, sign up for your blog or news feed because they trust that you’ll continue to send them content that inform, inspire or entertain them.
So how’s that working out for you? Using analytical tools like Similarweb (free membership required to use it), you can get a good idea about the traffic to your website.
Consider the site of a midsize engineering company that shall remain nameless because I’d like to keep them as a client, they get about 24,000 visits per month. Those visits average 1:37 minutes, which isn’t long enough to get an idea of what the firm can do. The average visitor sees 2.29 pages per visit, which again isn’t going to do much for the firm.
This organization puts a lot of work into its blogs and other content, for what turns out to be a tiny number of visitors.
Going back to our original question, how effective are these techniques for filling the top of the funnel, which by definition are people who are only slightly or not at all aware of your firm? SEO is probably the best, followed by social media because of its ability to target the kind of people who are most likely to become clients. Email marketing is not good as top-of-funnel work, because the recipients are people who know you well enough to sign up for your list – and your website and blog are also not going to do much for funnel-filling for you.
Why you need to be where your market is already looking
So, what are the best ways to fill the top of the funnel?
Two of the most effective ways to reach potential clients even before they’re aware that they have a need are also two of the oldest – getting your ideas in front of your market through the niche publications they rely on, and speeches to audiences of potential clients.
Both have long been areas of strength for professional firms, and that expertise long pre-dates the advent of content marketing, the Internet, or even computers.
Publishing in your clients’ niche media
In post #82, I went into detail about why trade and professional publications are still among the most valid ways to reach potential clients. This goes beyond the print issues of these publications, of course – most industry and association publications have a website that welcomes contributions from credible sources (and not just in text – they like videos, audio recordings, info-graphics, slide shows and other content). Many of them also have an e-newsletter and other properties that need useful content.
Presentations to client-attended events
The second top-of-funnel method is also long-established – presentations to client-attended events. These can be great ways to build relationships when you’re in a position of strength. I’ve described some of the benefits of public speaking in Post #39.
Going back to my starting analogy, all of the tools in my home toolbox have their uses. The key is in knowing which tools to use for which tasks – and it’s the same with the marketing tools described in this post.