Social media marketing catches on in professional services

Benefits of content marketing reach beyond traditional retail sector

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When social media marketing made is advent, retailers jumped on the bandwagon quickly as another way to reach audiences and move product. But professional service industries, such as the legal profession and engineering firms, aren’t so well known for implementing the latest shiny widget.

“They tend to let the market evolve, work out the kinks and then they jump in,” said Mitch Canton, Director, Digital Marketing for Live! Local Media, a local digital media company whose operations include the hyper-local website ClarkCountyLive.com. “They tend to learn from other’s mistakes.”

But recently, social media marketing has been catching on with local professional services firms, such as the Horenstein Law Group and MacKay Sposito.

When MacKay Sposito decided to write an external facing blog in addition to their employee-facing blog, senior vice president Derrick Smith said finding role models in the engineering industry was difficult.

“We [pretty much] charted our own course,” said Smith.

They started the blog, called Constructive Candor, in April 2014. Smith said they use the blog to deliver brand messages and provide technical helpful content to current and potential clients.

“We try to get into [readers’] heads and see what helps them move their job forward,” said Smith. “If they find it helpful they’ll return for new business.”

Giving something away for free may seem counterintuitive at first, but Smith said that it has paid off. For example, the firm was offered a small low-impact development (LID) project in Puyallup after a MacKay Sposito employee wrote a blog about touring Puyallup’s testing of several LID technologies. Conference attendees recognize the brand because they’ve already read some MacKay Sposito blogs.

“People come up and say ‘You’re the one that has the blog, you’re really thinking about our industry’,” said Smith. “Our brand was in front of them before we made contact.”

Steve Horenstein, co-managing partner of Horenstein Law Group hired Samantha Cody as the firm’s social media coordinator in April. She is a recent graduate of WSU Vancouver’s digital technology and culture program.

“We’ve gotten so busy with client work we were not doing a good job keeping our social media current,” said Horenstein. “But if you wait until you’re not busy to start marketing, you’ve waited too long.”

Cody said that while the firm is doing a good job of promoting community activities, they need to provide more knowledge-based content to show the community they can be a resource. While Steve and other attorneys at the firm write the content, Cody helps disseminate that information through the right channels – the firm’s blog for lengthy content, Twitter for late-breaking industry news, and so on.

“Clients expect lawyers to be up on their clients’ industry – not doing legal work in a vacuum,” said Horenstein. “And they don’t necessarily want to pay for that.”

Also, he added, a significant number of the firm’s clients find the firm online.

“We know this stuff works, even at the level we were doing. To the extent law firms are not doing this, they are losing competitive advantage.”

While Canton admits that the ROI for social media marketing can be hard to quantify, he said he tells clients it’s similar to quantifying the ROI for holding a door open for someone, or for having a cell phone.

“Creating a deeper, more meaningful relationship with a local consumer and establishing a top-of-mind awareness about the services you provide is really tough to quantify,” said Canton. “But it is what will keep you in business five years from now.”

So what should companies write about? Whatever is important to certain segments of clients. For example, for MacKay Sposito that means blogging about transportation infrastructure (what Smith called the “currency of progress”), low-impact development and project safety. For Horenstein, it’s changes in the business legal landscape and topics about the areas his firm focuses on such as land use and real estate transactions.

“It’s important to see blogging as a client service – don’t think of it as marketing per se,” emphasized Horenstein. “Keep it simple, do it often, and write in plain English – avoid using your industry lingo.”

For companies just starting out with content marketing using social media, Cody recommends setting reasonable goals, such as two Facebook posts and one blog per month. She also suggested using an editorial schedule to encourage consistent content delivery so readers begin to expect it and look for it.

And, said Smith, expect some challenges to begin with. For example, he said, most engineers don’t consider themselves good writers, so it has been a struggle to create a “culture of writing” at the company. As employees “exercise their writing muscles,” he said, blogging can become a leadership opportunity for employees

“It’s surprising where the talent lies sometimes,” said Smith.

Another major challenge, Smith said, was not so much creating the actual blogs, but creating the strategic vision of the big picture they were trying to convey.

“That’s not a content marketing problem or social media problem – it’s a basic business problem,” said Smith. “Once you have that figured out, the rest is easier.”

Because the ROI of social media marketing is not always immediately obvious, Smith said it helps to have a “couple of believers, close to the top” to keep the investment going. And it definitely takes investment. MacKay Sposito uses HubSpot to host their blog, and Smith described it as “quite expensive.” But it’s worth it, he said, because it provides a lot of data about who is visiting the blog and leaving comments.

“Plan to spend money,” stated Canton flatly. “Free lunches are so 2010, and pay-to-play is the nature of the business now, especially with Facebook.”

But the good news, said Smith, is that in the non-retail sector, because there aren’t a lot of companies using social media effectively yet, an effort doesn’t have to be grand to make an impact.

“You stand out just by doing it,” Smith said.

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Jodie Gilmore’s journalistic background includes more than 15 years of writing for the Vancouver Business Journal as well as other publications such as Northwest Women’s Journal, North Bank Magazine, American Builders Quarterly and The New American. A Master’s in Technical & Professional Writing and 20+ years in the trenches as a technical writer and online help developer round out her writing background. When not writing, she enjoys gardening and working on her small farm in the Cascade foothills.