Even the best plan of action will fail, if it's not coupled with a flawless execution of that plan.
When you deliver projects, in some cases you focus on the big picture and can leave implementation details to the client's team. But when your goal is to promote your own consulting firm, you are the one responsible to perform or oversee activities and ensuring you are making the best of your resources.
What will put your plan into practice is what I call the "marketing engine", and it is an essential part of my CCS growth framework for boutique consulting firms.
In this post, I'll go through its different components, how they work, and what are the most common mistakes consultants do.
The marketing engine is what moves your business forward, and to better illustrate this here are the different terms I use with clients:
- Fuel: The activities that get you in front of your audience.
- Ignition: How you generate awareness and interest in your services.
- Traction: The number of qualified opportunities in your sales pipeline.
- Speed: Actual sales, your revenue.
- Gears: What allows you to increase the speed with the same fuel consumption.
Let's take a look at each one of them.
Fuel: Propelling Your Demand Generation Initiatives
Your fuel is the actual marketing tasks and activities that you perform for or with your audience.
In the vast majority of the cases, consultants don't add fuel to their marketing engine regularly. When they need sales, they ask for a few referrals, make some calls, or write on social media. After finding some opportunities and closing a few new projects, they stop everything and focus on delivery.
In this case, the business is like a car that advances a hundred meters only to stop again. You, the driver, are forced to move in and out of the driving seat to add a cup of fuel every time speeds get to zero. Not wise.
The lack of enough fuel, or an irregular volume of fuel, will hurt your business in two ways:
- Your car will never maintain a decent driving speed, neither will be able to accelerate. Your revenue is a direct result of your qualified pipeline, and your pipeline is directly correlated with your marketing outputs and activities.
- You will never find out which types of fuel are more effective for your car. To understand what are the initiatives that provide you with a higher ROI, you need to experiment and keep track of them.
To complicate things, some marketing initiatives can take a long time to show results, or are impossible to directly measure. If you can't sustain initiatives -keeping your tank full - you won't learn and make sustained progress.
Some activities will get you in front of more people at a lower cost, such as online paid advertising or mass advertising in big media outlets. This doesn't mean they will convert into traction and speed, and have a real impact on your revenue.
Chance are there are some activities that will require more resources - a more expensive fuel per liter - but are much more efficient to generate new pipeline. These could include account-based outbound campaigns, direct mail, and running private events.
If you are not McKinsey or Bain, you don't need to run every kind of marketing initiative. You don't need to be on every social media, be part of every conference, and hire outdoors. Your engine will work perfectly well with 1 or 2 different fuels and will be far easier for you to operate.
You can easily buy fuel, the pure implementation of marketing initiatives - it is productized, and sometimes even commoditized. You can hire someone to produce articles for your blog. A sales agency to run cold outreach campaigns. Hire paid ads on every social media platform out there.
The main challenge is to identify which are those activities, and once you do ensure you keep pouring that fuel in a consistent matter.
Ignition: Turning Fuel Into Power
For your engine to generate power and transform it into traction, you need a spark to initiate combustion. This spark is the genuine interest in you, your consulting firm, and your offerings.
If fuel is what and how many activities you perform, ignition is how you do them.
Ignition is key to ensure you have an effective marketing engine since the lack of it will make you waste time and budget with no impact on your pipeline. If there's no interest in your initiatives, it's useless to keep pouring more fuel.
While fuel can be easily bought, with ignition it is not that simple. It's not about increasing reach but earning your audience's attention.
Getting your message in front of the right people is necessary. But you can't demand their attention, or directly buy it from them. What you want is to earn their permission for a conversation:
- Building credibility, by sharing unique and relevant content for your audience and highlighting social proof (your client's portfolio and case studies).
- Increasing reliability, by appearing frequently in front of your audience with a standardized brand, and sticking to your circle of competence.
- Creating familiarity and intimacy, by speaking your audience's language, and adopting a casual and fun tone of voice to communicate your expertise.
- Rejecting self-orientation, by proving valuable insights and resources without asking for retribution, and signaling you put people before profit.
Ignition consists of creating a spark of interest using your fuel. And that will require you to know your audience and share your expertise in a way that creates value for them.
Traction: Transforming Demand Into Opportunities
As mentioned, most of the time consulting firms are not pouring enough fuel into the engine - or not doing it consistently. If you, however, are continuously filling the tank and still don't see new opportunities in your pipeline, something's wrong. You haven't found traction yet.
In this case, one of the following things are happening:
- The fuel is not suited for you. Your initiatives are reaching the wrong audience. This might be due to poor targeting, when you either don't know who your ideal clients are or are not specific enough on who you want to reach. Or maybe you pick the wrong channel, and you are not meeting your audience where they are. If you sell to C-suite executives, it makes little sense to produce content on TikTok.
- There's no ignition. There's no interest in your messaging. Your initiatives are failing to communicate the value you bring to the audience. You are probably not speaking the same language as your clients, or are talking about topics they have no interest in.
It's easy to see that the best way to find traction is to know your audience really well. You have to do your research well, and make it a central part of your work.
If you know how to identify them and where you can reach them, it's easy to reduce your choice of fuel to a few more promising ones. And if you know what are their challenges, interests, and needs, it won't be hard to initiate a conversation that adds value to them and catch their interest and attention.
Speed: The Result Of Your Marketing Engine
Transforming traction into speed, or opportunities into new businesses, is the role of sales.
If you have enough traction, you will win new business no matter how bad you do sales. That's why having a strong engine is so important - it works as insurance against your poor processes or lack of sales skills.
Improving is your sales effectiveness is outside the scope of your marketing engine and constitutes the second gear of our framework to growth. You can read more about it here.
Marketing Gears: Driving Faster, Without Increasing Your Fuel Consumption
There is a limit to how fast your vehicle can go when you're stuck on the first gear. If you try to go over this limit, your engine will overheat and break. The same happens with your consulting practice.
What got your business off the ground is not what will make it thrive. As you start to gain speed, you can use the momentum to shift gears. This will allow you to disproportionally raise your top line (revenue) with the same amount of traction (qualified opportunities).
What we want from marketing gears is to produce leverage. While improving your sales effectiveness will result in more revenue with the same pipeline, it won't increase it exponentially. In the best of cases, you can win 2 or 3 times more businesses from qualified opportunities.
Marketing gears will allow you to grow your top line in 5, 10, or even 20 times with the same engine. They do this by increasing the amount of value you capture from each client.
You can achieve that by raising your fees or increasing the duration of your engagements. From our work with boutique consulting firms, we identify two main marketing gears that make it happen:
- Growing, improving, and productizing your offering mix.
- Investing in thought leadership and developing intellectual property (IP).
An offering mix allows you to upsell clients, providing them with additional services at higher fees. It also allows you to downsell prospects that do not have enough budget for your traditional services. You can create a productized audit, for example, that you can quickly deliver and still provides value for the prospect.
Most importantly, however, your offering mix allows you to grow your consulting firm without increasing labor. You can sell your most happy clients an advisory service on a retainer (access to you), or package part of your expertise into info products like books and online courses (access to your brain).
Thought leadership is all about demonstrating your expertise in your niche. When you do that, you increase your credibility, familiarity, and reliability among your target audience. It can include:
- Public speaking at industry conferences;
- Blogging unique insights under your own name;
- Hosting or being featured on a podcast;
- Publishing white papers or scientific research;
- Writing a book focused on your target audience.
These activities never generate immediate results and it is very difficult (sometimes impossible) to measure their ROI. You may never know a prospect heard you speaking on a podcast, unless they tell you so. But thought leadership will make you stand out among the crowd, increase the perceived value of your work, and allow you to charge higher fees.
Developing IP is also important, and sounds scary for many consulting firms mostly due to ignorance. It consists of documenting the models and frameworks you use in your consulting practice. You can transform it in training (adding it to your offering mix), you can license it to other consultants.
Those marketing gears are key to building an effective engine. The good news is that shifting early isn't bad for your car, neither for your consulting firm, as long as you're doing it correctly:
- It's better to start looking at your gears sooner than later. If you're not taking time to continually improve your offering mix and brand-building initiatives, you're capping the growth of your business. Trying to drive faster in the first gear is more costly and inefficient - and makes for a very unpleasant ride.
- You need to have at least some friction and speed in order to shift your gears. Do it too early, and your car will stop. These activities do not produce results in the short term, and if your pipeline is small you might get into financial trouble.
The next time you plan your growth initiatives, take some time to look at how you will measure and run your marketing engine. Strategy with no execution is just hope.