Contrary to popular belief, technical content does not need to be BORING. Just because you are discussing soil composition or the mechanics of a high-efficiency HVAC system, it doesn't mean you can't write something that will intrigue the right audience. Unfortunately, storytelling remains a mystery to many people in technical and scientific fields. This is why the STORY Method was developed.
Brief History of A/E/C Marketing and Reason for The STORY Method
Professional services marketing is a specialized field. The A/E/C (Architecture, Engineering and Construction) industry, a subgroup of professional services, has been especially slow in adopting sophisticated marketing practices. One reason for this is that prior to 1960 regulatory agencies prohibited firms from promoting themselves. Another reason is that people in the A/E/C industry tend to be analytical and often-introverted, by nature they loathe self-promotion, and in general have little interest in marketing or sales.
The need to market was forced upon A/E/C firm leaders when public sector procurement became more regulated and competition intensified in all market sectors. They started hiring people who could respond to RFQ's and RFP's. Over time, this marketing effort expanded to brochures, advertising and eventually websites. Thus, the era of A/E/C marketing began.
The evolution of A/E/C marketing has been neither seamless nor speedy. Technical firm leaders live to deliver projects. In the early days, while they acknowledged the need for proposals and supported proposal preparation, this effort wasn’t prioritized. Also, because firm leaders were practitioners, they didn’t trust non-technical professionals to develop proposal content. Early proposals were purely an extension of the dictated letter-writing process; assistants took what was said or written by the boss and they formatted it appropriately. Because communication between firms and clients over centuries had been focused on contracts, this is the style of writing familiar to firm leaders. It is no wonder that text focusing on scope of work, process, deliverables and cost continues to cloud A/E/C marketing communications. Anyone who has read a contract knows that the verbose, no detail left behind, compliance-focused language of a contract has no relationship with value-focused marketing communications.
The post-recession competitive environment, Age-of-the-Internet changes in the client purchasing process and industry globalization has forced an acceleration in the evolution of A/E/C marketing. However, habits can be hard to break. New tools and skills are needed. Two of these skills are storytelling and content marketing. A tool marketers can use for telling developing and amplifying stories is the STORY Method.
STORY Method for Professional Services Marketing
And-But-Therefore (ABT) STRUCTURE is the entry level tool for storytellers. It helps to immediately activate the narrative parts of the brain. In addition to telling the narrative of most successful movies, it is also the best format to use when telling the narrative of what makes your company unique.
And is the word of exposition. Use it to let people know your story hasn’t started but you are laying it out so you can build it up towards an exciting incident.
But is a word of contradiction that engages the narrative center in the brain. It relates methods and results along a journey. In story, when you have a clear conflict and action coming together, people will buy into your message and collaborate.
Therefore is the outcome of the journey. It is the third act, a discussion, and must include a real change or specific outcome resulting from your journey.
TRUST is one of the most important factors that influences prospects to find out more about your firm and ultimately decide they want to work with you. Stories are a great way to elicit trust. As humans, without trust, our relationships can never go past a certain level. The same goes for brands building relationships with owners. Therefore, providing proof in the form of Case Studies, Testimonials and Data provides confirmation that your claims are true.
Case Studies provide proof of past success solving relevant problems. Instead of just explaining what you do or presenting an idea, a case study demonstrates the value of what you do in a real-life example. Case studies also demonstrate to prospects why your expertise is important to them.
Testimonials are 3rd Party Validation that you are as good as you say you are. Anyone can say great things about themselves. However, when someone who is respected by your clients says you are great, your claims become believable.
Data from either trusted sources or research that can be validated, make your claims more reliable. Telling someone something is important without data to back up your claim has little influence. However, if you are quoting a study result that incorporated input from 1,000 of that person’s peers, your claim suddenly has more weight. This is also why White Papers that incorporate extensive research are consistently rated as one of the top 3 content strategies for influencing prospects.
OWNER attraction and satisfaction should be the central goal of every firm - and the central theme of every story your firm tells. If you tell stories that focus on how innovative you are, but don't put it in the context of a solution that provides value to owners, you won't win more work. Your stories need to tell about triumphant clients who had a problem that your innovation solved. When you make your owner/clients the hero of your stories, you will stand out.
Target the right owners. Target audiences are specific groups whose needs are aligned with your capabilities. We live in a world where we can get "expert" advice via a Google search. When we pay money for someone to provide us with a service we want to hire an expert. What do you do better than anyone else? Based on the answers to these questions, target your marketing efforts to specific groups of people who face the problems your expertise can solve.
Write to a specific owner Persona, a fictional, generalized representations of your ideal client. Personas help you internalize the ideal customer you are trying to attract so you can deliver customized content. Using personas, you can focus on a single individual you would like to have a meaningful conversation with to addresses their issues, challenges and/or aspirations.
In developing a persona, create a detailed profile that includes: demographics - age, gender, salary, firm position, location, education, family; goals and challenges; values and fears; your core marketing message to them; and a key differentiator. To gain insight into your personas you can look at your site analytics to determine where visitors came from, the keywords they used to find you and what they looked at upon arrival at your site.
WHY and Perspective go hand in hand. In marketing, it is NOT about YOU! Owners do not look at A/E/C services the same way you do. They are purchasing solutions that will get them to their goal, solve their problems, or improve their experience throughout the process. To you, how you get to the solution is important, to them the result is their primary consideration. For instance, you are working on a proposal to construct a new $100 million hospital addition. The proposal asks you to describe your QA/QC processes. Before cutting and pasting six pages of text from your quality control manual – STOP!
Ask yourself - WHY does quality control matter to them? They don’t care about the responsibilities of each team member, or logs that trace back to lists, or lists that are confirmed by the action plans, which are then added into reports and integrated into the schedule. This is important to you. Things they care about include: mistakes in the field that endanger patient lives; incorrectly installed glazing that leaks resulting in mold that can kill patients with impaired immune systems; and having access to 100% as-built documents so they don’t experience surprises during future maintenance.
Write your response from their perspective. Put yourself in their shoes. What would you want to hear about QA/QC to be reassured that no patient, staff member or visitor will be harmed because of construction mistakes.
RESONANT content is the newest standard in content marketing. Stories resonate. One of the most important things to track is the engagement rate of your posts. This signals the beginning, or continuation of a conversation. With more than 300 million blog posts and articles showing up on the internet each day, to cut through the noise you need to deliver real value. You know you have achieved this objective when people read your articles and sign up to get more.
Your story needs to move people's spirits and build their goodwill, so that when you finally do ask them to buy from you, they feel like you've given them so much it would be almost rude to refuse. -Gary Vaynerchuk, Marketing Guru and Author of Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World
Actionable content using stories are an invitation for dialogue, not a one-way commentary. Content should do more than just raise brand awareness. It should help build an audience because you are producing something your readers eagerly anticipate – and will subscribe to receive – the end goal of Inbound Marketing. Make your stories meaningful enough to make a difference and inspire action.
Educational content uses stories to teach your audience about things they will benefit from knowing. When you provide meaningful information, over time you will be recognized as a credible source of information. Credibility is important. With so many people out there providing “education”, establishing yourself as an expert makes you believable, and most important, trustworthy. If your content helps a prospect make a better decision, then there is a good chance that when they need the service you offer, they will give you a call.
An interesting trend related to educational content comes from survey results indicating that people are expressing interest in extensive, data-backed 2,000-3,000-word articles over short-format “advertisements”. This is because they represent value, seriousness, and expertise. If you doubt that people will really read an in-depth article, consider the popularity of investigative journalism and all of the reality shows that are spin-offs of this genre.
To thrive in an over-saturated content world, you’ll need to constantly write or produce content with depth. Longer posts, more substantive content that people find useful and inspired. - Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer, MarketingProfs
To be Relevant, your stories need to answer this question – will the people I want to reach care? If you are a professional services company, you sell your knowledge and expertise. Share the good stuff! A lot of firms come up with innovative ideas as a response to a specific client’s issues. Even if the client doesn’t end up hiring you for their project, the idea itself will make a great story. However, often firm leaders are adamant about not giving away company secrets. Don’t think of it that way! You aren’t going to give away details, specifications or enough data for someone to copy. Think of it as an executive summary or conceptual design.
The real secret here, and we don’t want to upset anyone, what you are doing probably isn’t all that unique. However, if you are unique in the fact that you are the only one sharing it with prospects, or you are presenting a different spin on an existing concept, you will stand out in the minds of your readers. Some people will try to do things themselves after reading your informational content, and that’s okay because they are too cheap to pay you to do it right anyway. Other people, however, will realize that they value your expertise, and they will come to you for more.
Stories, by nature, will be more interesting to your readers than simple facts and data. When faced with a blank sheet of paper, consider things your target audience will find useful, unexpected, entertaining, humorous, inspirational, or even controversial (be careful with this one). In Gary Vaynerchuk’s book JAB, JAB, JAB, RIGHT HOOK: HOW TO TELL YOUR STORY IN A NOISY SOCIAL WORLD he describes, “Jabs are the lightweight pieces of content that benefit your customers by making them laugh, snicker, ponder, play a game, feel appreciated, or escape; right hooks are calls to action that benefit your business.”
Not every bit of the content you post or share needs to be revolutionary. Switching up the type of stories you post gives your readers a reason to keep coming back. Also, varying the ways you communicate your stories will increase your interest factor. Instead of sticking with an article format, mix it up using SlideShare, videos, eBooks, white papers and infographics. Finally, don’t forget the images. People are more than twice as likely to read your story if it is accompanied by compelling graphics.
To be of value, your stories must be accessible. No matter how great your story is, it won’t mean anything to anyone if no one sees it. Remember, more than 300 million articles and posts are made each day. You need to tell your story to your target audience wherever they are and ideally, when they are ready to make a purchasing decision. So, make sure your clients can FIND your posts. Use both inbound and outbound campaigns to spread your content. Share on social media, especially with specific user groups. For organic searches, optimize SEO. Publish consistently as well – this helps with SEO and it gives the people who like what you have published in the past a reason to keep coming back to you.
Last year, according to a report by Beckon, enterprise content creation increased by 300%, yet less than 5% of that content had 10 or more shares! As a result of poor organic reach of content, we’ve been seeing a rise in content advertising and paid content amplification. – Travis Writer, Cofounder, Chief Marketing Technology, CCP.Digital
Having a YARDSTICK, a plan for measuring the success of your content marketing efforts, will make it possible to answer the question that is almost always asked whenever a marketer is requesting money or time to be set aside for a new strategy – “What am I going to get out of it?” In an industry where margins are thin, you will need to convince your boss that there is value in what you are proposing. Traditionally, it has been difficult to put a real value on ROI for marketing activities because marketing is about raising awareness, improving visibility and generating leads. This is one reason why firms track hit rates. If you look at projects won as a percentage of projects proposed, you can get a sense of whether what your efforts are paying off. It is possible to track the ROI of Content Marketing, but until digital marketing strategies become more prevalent in professional services marketing, your results will likely be unreliable. However, despite the elusive nature of measuring digital marketing effectiveness, there are ways you can track results.
Analytics focuses on consumption metrics – page views, downloads, clickthroughs, social chatter, etc. In addition to showing there is an interest in what you are posting, analytics gives you an idea of how people are using your website and whether they come back for more (engagement). Social sharing metrics lets you know if your content is resonant; however, sharing metrics are overvalued because they’re measured publicly and probably not reaching the prospects who will add to your bottom line.
Because the primary goal of your marketing plan is to generate, qualify and convert leads, measuring the number of Generated Leads and Converted Leads is important. Following the digital journey prospects take from initial engagement to becoming a client will help you understand how your stories are impacting client acquisition. To give yourself something to track, include a call to action unique to a campaign.
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DEBORAH OBLITAS, CPSM, MBA