The Evidence of Influence

About a week ago I came across this HubSpot post showing that websites influence 97% of clients’ purchasing decisions (survey by The best part of this survey from my perspective was that it was focused solely on professional services, completely eliminating the argument of many nay-sayers that statistics are often skewed by product companies.

The survey hits on a very important point that I try to reinforce with clients and colleagues all the time.

Marketing is not only about the immediate ROI, but must include longer-term and softer metrics.

Your AEC firm’s website is only one tool in the marketing mix, but it can be pretty easily extrapolated that other marketing channels have similar influence (some perhaps more successful than a website, others less). I’d like to draw a few parallels to other channels.

Online advertising – There is a great deal of importance placed on click-throughs and conversions. However, a solid ad buy of a couple hundred thousand impressions provides influence, name recognition and brand building that needs to be measured through client sentiment and long-term growth. That also means sticking with it over a period of time, so that it has the chance to work. (Remember that compared to a website, almost any other marketing channel has a shorter lifespan)

Social media – There are any number of articles and blog posts about calculating social media ROI, and plenty trying to get firms to STOP doing so in the first place. Looking solely at influence, your blog, Twitter account(s) and Facebook pages all cast a net. They don’t HAVE to result in direct sales for them to be successful or worthwhile. They allow you and your firm to have more connection with your audience, and therefore more influence when it comes time for them to make a buying decision. On the flip side, when done poorly or started but then abandoned, they do just what a broken down website does. They serve to discredit your firm, or at least raise red flags that demand further investigation.

I often tell people that a great website probably won’t “win” you any contracts, but a poor website can definitely lose them. It’s nice to have a survey that, in my opinion, backs that up with good, professional service-specific numbers.

How to Market to the Federal Government, Not Just Sell

The following is a piece written for a white paper series on marketing to the Federal Government. It includes info for professional service companies, as well as product companies, but it is still very applicable for the AEC marketplace.

When it comes to measuring your company’s performance year-to-year or quarter-to-quarter, you likely view several metrics. The financial ones are pretty cut and dry. They’re based on revenue, costs, profit or some combination of factors that are ultimately summed up with a number.

Sales or business development activities tie right in to those reports. Most of the time, a lead is identified, efforts are invested in developing that lead and a sale is either closed or lost. Whether your company is a product or service driven business, this holds true. Those leads translate to a direct impact in your reporting and ultimately your bottom line. It’s quite tidy actually, and assuming the products or services you sell are high quality and the Federal Government needs them, it can be easy to determine when sales efforts have not been effective. A change can be made (whether sales person, client or your offering) and then your company can try it all over again, hopefully with an improved result.

What does vary between product and service companies are: the length of the sales cycle, whether you have a long-term client relationship, a repeating sales opportunity, chances for additional work or chances to sell new products. These factors are unique to company, product, service and the client agency. It’s the responsibility of a great salesperson or sales team to account for these differences in their approach and deliver sales growth single-handedly, correct?

Not exactly.

Enter Marketing…
The direct relationship between sales calls and bottom line is in fact, not all that direct. A 1:1 ratio between sales efforts and sales lost/won wouldn’t take into account the factor of marketing.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How many sales or contracts were closed on the first contact with a new client?
  • What do your clients know about you that you or your sales person didn’t tell them directly?
  • Have you ever lost a sale because the client was misinformed about a perceived strength or weakness?

Whether you are aware of it or not, your company has a brand and a marketing presence…even if it is defined by a severe lack of one. The space between new lead and signed contract is only one gap where marketing is already affecting your company’s performance. There are numerous others, including before you ever introduce yourself and long after your first job is done or product is delivered.

If “sales” is what happens when you’re doing a pitch, “marketing” is what takes over after you leave the room…and probably had something to do with how you got there in the first place.

So How Do We Market?
Marketing to the Federal Government takes a lot of time and effort, but you have several things going for you that private industry doesn’t have. For starters, you know there are spending cycles and there is no shortage of information available about your client and your competition. Following are the key items on your to-do list if you want to market, not just sell, to the Federal Government.

Do the Research
There is so much information on Federal contracts available it is mind-boggling. Choosing a tool to streamline your research efforts is important, so that you don’t waste countless hours sifting through the wrong information. I recommend FedSources IntelliSearch. Effective research should tell you the following about your clients at a minimum:

  • How much they are spending on your product or service
  • Who the actual buyer is
  • Who was doing the job or had the contract before you

Of course, you can dig for hours, so start with an idea of what you need. Think about research objectives specific to clients and keep them within a similar timeframe of one another, so you can analyze “apples to apples.” It’s also a good idea to get a macro-level result for reference. For example, it may seem at first glance like the Department of the Army is a huge buyer of your products, when in fact if you searched at the Department of Defense level you would realize that the Army is the smallest buyer in comparison to other branches.

Create a Strategy
Armed with clean, consistent numbers, you now need to analyze them and determine the appropriate way forward. That initially means which clients are the right fit for your company. This is a crucial area where marketing strategy enhances your sales efforts. Cold calling and the law of averages will only get you so far. Understanding how the government buys can help you rule out agencies that aren’t strong targets. Develop your target audience based on the same criteria that they use to select their vendors:

  • Location
  • Prior experience with the agency
  • Contracting vehicles or purchase ability

Once you know whom you’re marketing to, it’s time to fine-tune your research and create a list of specific tactics to help you reach those targets. Tactics could include attending the right events, direct mail campaigns, seeking out partnerships, social media outreach and any number of other communications efforts. Your tactics should always include keeping your contact information updated on in any number of directories, such as CCR.

Develop Your Message
What do you want to say to your potential clients? If you have a sales pitch or an elevator speech already developed, what is it really saying about your company’s products or services? Where many sales efforts fall short isn’t in the pitch, it’s in the supporting materials. If you communicate your most valuable points verbally, but your website, proposal, brochure or ads don’t carry the same message, your efforts aren’t as successful as they could be. The most successful government contractors know how to consistently communicate several key items at every touch point with the client:

  • Accessibility – which contracts, schedules or contract vehicles do you have
  • Federal Government experience – agency client list, years in business
  • Value – what you do that offers unique value to their agency

Just as an exercise, take a quick review of the websites of the top ten Federal Contractors from FY 08. With only one or two exceptions, you can find a list of their government contracts in one click. Of course they each have their own way of communicating their experience and value right up front as well, mostly with photographs of seasoned employees and recent project work, not just text.

Execute the Plan
Woody Allen said, “Eighty percent of life is showing up.” While marketing isn’t quite that simple, if the strategy is already developed and the message is crafted, the execution really is just about showing up and following through. Marketing has to be a constant and repetition is crucial, but that doesn’t mean running the same ad every month for years on end. Your marketing strategy should contain a mix of tactics, and repetition comes when you execute all of those tactics at various times, with the goal being that the same person sees your name in a variety of locations. Seeing a person or object in the same place repeatedly develops an expectation (think about children not realizing that teachers have “other lives”), seeing a familiar face in numerous locations develops recognition.

Measure Your Results
This would be far from good marketing advice if I didn’t tell you to measure your results and actually apply your metrics to make better decisions next year. Marketing decisions should become more informed every year, and thus more effective and efficient. Even though marketing doesn’t always tie directly to a percentage of revenue growth, there are still several metrics to let you know if your message is reaching your audience. Some specifics to look at include:

  • Contracts unique to new target markets (instead of overall revenue growth)
  • Web traffic (direct click-throughs from ads or partnerships)
  • Web traffic (improved organic search results for a newly designed site or revised content)
  • Hit rate or effectiveness on proposals (Macro-level: year-to-year comparison, Micro-level: specific to client-type)
  • Leads generated

There is no shortage of metrics, but it’s important to apply them in a useful way. Again, not all metrics will translate directly to the bottom line.

When It’s All Said and Done
The goal for all businesses is sustainable, long-term growth through brand recognition and an improved reputation. Successfully doing business with the Federal Government takes time, a thorough understanding of the landscape and a combination of sales and marketing working in concert.

Reconnect with your prospects – before it’s too late

A good friend and colleague of mine passed on a funny and/or disturbing story…depends on how you look at it.

Their firm had a relatively manageable mailing list, roughly 1,000 names or so. They’ve been mailing promotions, holiday cards, newsletters, etc. to this list for years. He said the list usually gets updated based on returned packages, with a few manual reviews every now and then.

As a “strategic” marketing move for the year (he was quite sure to point out that it felt a lot more tactical than strategic), the firm was combing through every name on the list to ensure they were accurate. Much to his surprise, on only his fifth name into the list he uncovered an out-of-date contact. No big deal, really.

However, he discovered that the contact had passed away…seven years ago. While this clearly pointed out that somebody hadn’t been taking care of the list very well, it more blatantly showed how out of touch the firm was with their prospects.

For most firms, last year was all about cutting expenses, yet still trying to bring business in the door – in any way possible. But how many prospects, leads or potential clients are already on our lists that we haven’t even bothered to make a personal connection with? These are people that are pre-qualified, know who we are, have received our mailings and have maybe even received a proposal from us before. Nothing says “we really want to work for you” like submitting one proposal and never calling again, right?

I’m not suggesting that regular follow up phone calls are the way to go for every lost contract, but it is important to stay in touch with the people that you really see as prospects. The moral of the story to me was, if they are a good fit for your firm, make an effort to keep in touch. If they aren’t a good fit, don’t put them on your list in the first place. It might save you seven years worth of wasted mailings.

Relationships don’t create themselves

Several months back I wrote a post about firms being more selective in their RFP responses. The post basically said, “stop wasting time chasing opportunities that you have no chance of winning.” Oddly enough, a Facebook fan (and close friend of mine) commented on the post that “going after any work at all is generally encouraged”. Their comment was basically the antithesis of what my post was all about! However, with the way things went in 2009, that was the sentiment of many firms. “Hey, we can do this work. We should submit a proposal!”

Fast forward to today, when I received the latest issue of Marketer. The cover story was a fantastic read and hit the nail on the head – firms are wasting time on proposals and BD efforts with no strategy! W. Bruce Lea and J. Rossi gathered excellent statistics on what firms that actually WON work were doing well.

Without giving away too much of the article, the firms that won jobs overwhelmingly had developed client relationships pre-RFP, had multiple meetings or get togethers pre-RFP, and had opened the door to multiple points of contact with the client pre-RFP (amongst other things).

There are two ways to look at those survey results. The first is that clients make decisions based on referrals and prior working relationships – that’s it. Fortunately, that just isn’t the case.

The second way to look at those survey results is that a coordinated marketing and communications campaign actually does work. Please note, I didn’t say sales or business development campaign. Sales is only one aspect of the big picture.

A coordinated marketing strategy will help identify new clients before the opportunities arise, so that genuine relationships can be developed. That strategy will include sales efforts or calls inevitably, but it should also have the right mix of networking events, client-focused messaging, direct response outreach, advertising, social media…the list goes on.

Yes, getting new work for your AEC firm is all about the relationships you develop before the RFPs are released…and that’s exactly what your marketing strategy should focus on as well.