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Welcome to Marketing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them). Here’s your host, Stacy Jones.Stacy Jones (00:14):
Welcome to Marketing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them). I’m Stacy Jones, and I’m so happy to be here with you all today. I want to give a very warm welcome to Alison Simons. Alison is the founder of Simons Marketing, a marketing professional firm that builds ROI focused marketing strategies.Stacy Jones (00:28):
With a background in marketing, branding, digital, recruiting, and business development, Alison creates customized programs that align with time allocation and budget, with services ranging from keeping our blog updated, newsletters, social media refreshes outsource marketing directors to take the lead on strategy and hands-on execution of marketing plans, complete website designs, and evaluation and elevation of your overall brand image, including team and brand building.Stacy Jones (00:53):
Today, Alison and I are going to be chatting about ROI focused marketing. We’ll learn what works from Alison’s perspective, what should be avoided, and how some business just miss the mark. Alison, welcome. So happy to have you here.Alison Simons (01:04):
Thank you. It’s great.Stacy Jones (01:07):
What I always like doing starting off is how did you get here today? You are on the East Coast, just outside of Boston. You have a bustling marketing firm that you work within. How? Why?
Alison Simons (01:21):
Yeah. I always knew I wanted to be a marketer, and I ended up working for a CPA firm. I was their head of marketing for seven years, and we had a blast. We were a really high growth firm, and we had some good niches. This is like, oh gosh, almost 20 many years ago. The things that we’re still talking about today, we were doing well back then, which allowed us to do some good marketing. And then when it was time to go, I decided that I didn’t want to go and do the same job again.
Alison Simons (01:57):
I set off on my own, which was incredible, because some of the smaller firms that knew of my work and the firm that I worked for wanted to know if they could engage me on a fractional basis. I was the most reluctant entrepreneur, but it has absolutely been the right move for me. From there, what I really realized is that marketing is too sophisticated and complex for any one person to take on all of the roles, and so I started to surround myself with specialists inside of the part of marketing that they love most.
Alison Simons (02:28):
And now that’s how we all collaborate together. It’s just been so fun. Now we have 13 of us and we are working for CPA firms, law firms, and other professional services firms all throughout New England and just having so much fun.
Stacy Jones (02:43):
I love the fact that you can on saying, we’re having so much fun. I was working at the accounting firm and I had so much fun, because usually… Right? She’s sitting here laughing. She’s like, “What the heck? Why are you saying this?” Usually when you talk to someone about accounting and about law, the words “so much fun” don’t come out, right? And here you are, you’re like, these are very state industries, sometimes very boring, structured, safe, but you’re having so much fun.
Alison Simons (03:11):
The people we work with are great and they want to do good work for their clients. And that’s what matters to us. Sometimes we’ll say we want to work with good people to help them do more good work for more good people. It comes down to helping them with brand and helping them to realize who they are, and then helping to share and amplify that message to the audiences who can consider them for whatever they need. Our clients are working with individuals with small businesses as their clients.
Alison Simons (03:41):
Those people need support and need help moving things forward and making money and hiring more people and continuing to work in the economy. What’s fun for us is when we get to take what we know and apply it to them directly and to help them to move their businesses forward in a way that’s meaningful and help them to reach their goals.
Stacy Jones (04:02):
When you’re doing this, how do you first approach a professional service firm, because it’s different than a lot of other brands?
Alison Simons (04:10):
To me, marketing… One of the catch phrases that I have all the time is marketing doesn’t set your goals, it helps you achieve them. Where we start is with the firm’s goal. Sometimes we actually have to get those out of them because those are not conversations that they’re having all the time. If a firm wants to grow by 20%, or it wants to grow by five and a half percent, we’re going to have very different goals for them. If they’re having a hard time, recruiting, marketing can help with recruiting.
Alison Simons (04:37):
If they’re losing bids to a strong competitor, we can maybe do brand and differentiation. If they have too many low paying clients and their team is too stretched out, we can maybe do something with commodity buyers or helping them to identify value buyers. There are just so many different things and you don’t know what their goals are, but their goal is never marketing. Marketing is just the way that we help them to reach their goals.
Stacy Jones (05:00):
The goal is, at the end of day, always money in the bank at some level of any business. But you’re working with different strategies that you’re trying to leverage and different ways to impact consumers to actually getting trust, because it’s a big thing that you’re focused on is trust building as well, I’m assuming
Alison Simons (05:20):
Yes. Trusted advisor is a cliche at this point in professional services. To me, if you don’t trust your advisor, you’re not going to work with them. I kind of think of that as a floor, whereas everyone sort of thinks of it as this like penultimate attribute of the firm. But what I think is true is that people, buyers are using the firm’s marketing as a proxy for how good the firm is at doing its work. They have to do that because they can’t evaluate the quality of an audit or an estate plan until the work is done.
Alison Simons (05:55):
And to be honest, most consumers of those services wouldn’t know a good one from a bad one anyway. The quality of the marketing is what they’re evaluating, and that’s something that is early in the process and can really impact which firm gets chosen.
Stacy Jones (06:13):
Are you saying that most of us don’t finish estate planning and race out and like post about it on our socials going, “Woo hoo! That was so awesome. I had the best estate planning experience ever in my life.” No?
Alison Simons (06:25):
I am saying that only about a third of Americans have their estate plan done. And that even if you have it done, you need to keep it updated depending on the different life stages that you have. There are times when yes, you should return to your estate planning attorney. We’ve written many articles about these topics for some law firms in our group here. But yes, it’s hashtag adulting. It’s not the most fun thing that any of us want to do. Doing your tax return, people don’t always put a value on it, and that’s some of what it comes down to as well.
Alison Simons (07:01):
In 2022, and we’ve started it already, but it’s going to continue to be a focus of ours is commodity buyers, and the fact that it is hard for consumers to sift through all of the options that they have and to know which service provider would be a good fit for them. And because of that, they think everybody is equally good at what they’re doing, and then they use price as their most important decision-making criteria. And that puts pressure on the firm and it erodes profit margin, but it actually does a disservice to everyone.
Stacy Jones (07:35):
When you’re working with professional service firms, how do you help them differentiate? Because besides the silo of, okay, I’m a law firm versus I’m an accounting firm, that’s a basic silo, but how are you helping them differentiate from each other within markets?
Alison Simons (07:53):
It’s a really important thing to figure out with them. One of the things that we’ll do is actually a market research-based brand project. We will go out and interview their clients and their referral sources and find out what it is that makes that firm special in the eyes of the buyers and referral sources. We’ll also do a written survey to a broad swath of people. We’re hearing a number of voices and not over emphasizing any small number of them. We bring that back to the firm and we show them what the world thinks of them.
Alison Simons (08:27):
It’s usually very positive and, in fact, more kind than they would’ve been able to say about themselves. We get to the heart of that what it’s like to do business with you and who would be a good match and who maybe isn’t looking for what you have. Because brands can both attract and repel, and those are both good things. You want to attract the right while politely repelling the wrong type of prospect. The other thing that’s really important in professional services is to do niches.
Alison Simons (08:59):
Whether that’s specializing in certain industries and getting really deep knowledge in serving companies in certain industries, or whether it’s specialties, like you had mentioned estate planning, estate planning is considered law, and so you could consider yourself a specialty boutique estate planning law firm.
Alison Simons (09:17):
Even more would be to say that you focus on divorced couples or modern families or other ways that you can kind of even further identify yourselves as someone who is thinking and is the right fit for some very narrow group that then makes them easier to identify and target and get to.
Stacy Jones (09:40):
What are some of the mistakes that people make along the way, besides the fact not realizing that you should repel potential clients that are not going to be fit for you?
Alison Simons (09:51):
Yes. There are a number of mistakes. We’ll see how much time we have. But I think one of the most important ones is professional services firms are partnerships. The people at the top are the people with the most experience, and they have a certain amount of time left that they plan to run their firm. Whether that’s three years or five years or a few years more than that, what they have to be thinking about is how to keep investing in their firm because buyers are changing their behavior.
Alison Simons (10:18):
Buyers are going online and researching, and they are doing more and more of the sales process on their own before they even reach out to a firm. If the owners of the firm, the partners at the firm are still getting a lot of referrals and they are getting enough new business in the door through their network, they may not feel that investing in marketing is all that important.
Alison Simons (10:40):
The challenge then becomes when they want to retire and they want someone else to come in and buy that firm, that rising generation is supposed to buy into the partnership, which provides the cash flow for the retiring partner. But if the younger people don’t feel that the firm has been invested in and that it has modern marketing and that it is a lead engine like firms can have now with their websites and proper marketing, they may not feel that it’s a good investment for them, and they may not want to buy the firm.
Alison Simons (11:11):
The partners that are not investing in marketing today may actually be eroding the value of the firm at the price that it will be when they are ready to sell, but instead they’re prioritizing current cash flow.
Stacy Jones (11:22):
I would even say and take that one step further, besides when they’re going to want to sell, today when hiring employees, you want to make sure that they see your business as vibrant and growing and that it has future and potential. If you’re not leveraging the digital platforms that help bring in those lead gens, you are actually repelling potential employees who contribute today’s growth.
Alison Simons (11:46):
Yeah, absolutely. You’re right. They’re the highest quality employees. Because the professionals today say, “I have a personal brand, and who am I going to align my personal brand with? Which firm’s brand aligns best with my personal brand,” because your own reputation is really important. If you’re not going to spend your entire career with one place, you need to be able to maintain your integrity, maintain the quality of what you can do, and have access to resources that are going to help you.
Alison Simons (12:14):
Personal branding inside of firm branding is something else that we focus on. When we’re writing content and ghost writing for firms, we’re putting the names of a person in the firm on that article. When we share them on social media, we’re tagging that author in the post, because we recognize that it is not just the firm’s brand that matters.
Alison Simons (12:32):
When that person has a high quality personal brand and is known for being a specialist in a certain niche and is being sought after, all of those pieces are compounding and growing toward the ultimate goal, which is that you’re no longer seen as anyone in the market. You are seen as the number one firm to go to for this thing, and your advice is sought after. Trust is not even something that anyone gives a second thought to. It’s your advisory. It’s your ideas.
Alison Simons (13:04):
It’s aligning yourself with your client’s goals and everyone knowing that you’re going to be moving in the same direction.
Stacy Jones (13:12):
I love the fact that you keep on mentioning the word growth, because that’s what it’s all about. Whether it’s growing your business, growing your employees, growing yourself, all of this with marketing can be supported your growth on any level whatsoever. Marketing does mean growth.
Alison Simons (13:29):
It does. It needs to be good growth though. And that’s why we’re talking about commodity buyers and value buyers. Being able to identify those two types of buyers early in the process is really important.
Alison Simons (13:41):
If your firm is one that feels that serving commodity buyers could be a good path forward for you, identifying them early and not spending too much time on the pitch, but rather giving people the package options, allowing them to select from one of them, and then making sure that your team is ready to serve up to the boundaries of that package and not beyond is going to allow you to have highly valuable and profitable commodity buyers without eroding profit margin.
Alison Simons (14:12):
And then conversely, knowing when you’ve got a value buyer in front of you is going to allow you to ask the forward looking, goal-oriented questions that are going to differentiate you from the service providers, the professional services firms asking about compliance or how to meet the goal…The issue that the client came in with may only be the tip of the iceberg. They may need a lot more.
Alison Simons (14:39):
The idea of saying, “Yes, we can take care of that thing, but let’s also address these other things in your business,” are going to be seen as advisory and not just trying to sell more stuff.
Stacy Jones (14:50):
When you have been diving in and you have figured out from research the differentials from the professional firm that you’re working with, what makes people shine, who the stars are that actually should have brands developed besides necessarily the founder or C-suite, what is your next step? What is your next approach there?
Alison Simons (15:10):
Yeah. The rising stars are in some ways the firm’s most important customers, because keeping them engaged and keeping them as that beating heart of the firm is really important. Those are the people who can be doing recruiting. Those are the people who can be authoring articles and doing webinars and being interviewed on podcasts and really be highlighted as assets that the firm has to offer.
Alison Simons (15:40):
Because today’s buyers are in their forties and fifties, just like always, and we need to be showing them that we have that same demographic and that same long-term ability to commit and to invest in finding out about your firm and helping you for years and years and years to come.
Stacy Jones (16:01):
It sounds like from what you just said that with buyers, making sure that you’re aligned and that you’re relatable to buyers in their forties and fifties as a professional firm, very much so the ownership level might be a little aged above that level.
Alison Simons (16:17):
Professional services firms right now are still led by boomers. There are studies that are being done about why people choose to move on from firms and what kind of helps them to stay. I have lots of opinions on that matter. The research is showing that boomer partners are not ready to go because they feel like the next generation is not ready to take over. I think there’s more complexity to that statement, and then we got to kind of parse that out. But really what it comes down to is something that you said earlier, which is growth and skill building.
Alison Simons (16:57):
The idea that we need to be working with the rising generation to skill build before we expect results from them. Staffers and young attorneys need to be skill building on networking before we expect them to be bringing in new clients or finding referral sources. Mid-level professionals, directors, and partners, and attorneys that are not yet equity partners need to be bringing in new clients, but those are going to be not necessarily through the most relationship driven paths as they’re still building those relationships.
Alison Simons (17:32):
They may be learning how to go to a proposal meeting, how to do a budget for a new client, how to ask those growth oriented questions and not focus just on the thing that the person came in for. Allowing them to skill build all along the way will make sure that they’re ready to buy in and ready to be a partner and a leader when the firm needs them, and also allowing the exiting partners to have the confidence that the firm will continue to be well run in their absence.
Stacy Jones (18:03):
How do you approach that? How do you figure out not just the skill building on them and making sure that they get that, how are you also besides shoving them in front of a computer and saying, “Watch this other webinar for you because I have 1,001 more of those to eat away at your time,” how do you make sure that your firm is nurturing those growing, as well as more established employees?
Alison Simons (18:29):
Personal marketing plans are basically how we would go about that. We would talk to them about what their career goals are and what they want to build as their book of business, so what is their ideal client base. And then we want to be helping them to position themselves to become specialists and known advisors in that space.
Alison Simons (18:49):
They need to be joining specific industry groups, getting onto committees, being asked to speak, doing any kind of outreach in that area. If there is an opportunity to put an advertisement out, you might promote that person’s personal brand and really helping them to understand how each of the parts of what they’re doing inside of marketing is contributing to the whole.
Alison Simons (19:14):
And then also working with the firm to have them understand what the rising star’s timeline and expectations are around joining the partnership, because we need to make sure that there is communication in both directions or expectations won’t be met on one side, and then there’ll be some discords that didn’t need to be there if we could have just communicated in advance what everyone thinks is going to happen and the expectations and the output that needs to be met by the rising star in order for them to be accepted in partnership.
Stacy Jones (19:47):
When you’re putting together the what is the expectations, coming back, if you are a firm and you’re like, “Gosh, geez, now I have to actually not only pay these people, I have to invest in growing their brand, invest in making sure they know what they’re doing, invest in the latest tools. They all want a MacBook. Got to invest in that too,” as you’re going through all of these things, you’re also needing to set bars though for expectations on the opposite side.
Stacy Jones (20:15):
How do you manage that of, I’m going to do this, how am I going to measure and see if this is successful with how I am spending my money and my time on my people?
Alison Simons (20:29):
If you’re a professional services firm, most of your expense is your people. That’s where it’s going to be. It’s so expensive to replace someone, and it’s so stressful for the rest of the team, that the best thing you can do is invest in your people. If the firm needs to say, “Okay, you need a certain book of business before we can make you a partner,” we back up from there. We say, “Okay, in five years, you need to have a half a million dollars in recurring revenue.” Okay, well then let’s back into that.
Alison Simons (21:02):
What do we need to do starting now to start to get you into the right relationships, to get you into the right organizations, to have you author the articles, to get you on what podcasts, so that there is this gravitational force pulling people towards you as an advisor in that space, and then building that network and figuring out who are the referral sources that really are going to be long-term partners with me, whom I can reasonably refer out to, and who will in the long run want to continue to reach out to me.
Alison Simons (21:39):
And making sure that those people understand what types of clients are a good fit for you and which ones aren’t. That way, the referrals that they’re giving you good ones and you’ll take good care of those people. They’re not too small. They’re not in the wrong industry. They’re not geographically undesirable for you in whatever way. And then you can serve them in the best way possible and continue to get additional referrals and even have your clients refer you as well.
Alison Simons (22:05):
Again, I think even when it comes to personal brands and trying to get people to their individual goals, it’s really about saying, where do we need to get to? And how long do we have to do it? And what pieces do we have to put into place to make that happen?
Stacy Jones (22:19):
How soon is too soon, or is it never too soon to start working on employees’ personal brands?
Alison Simons (22:27):
I think that you need a few years of experience to know what you want to specialize in, and that specializing is an important part of branding. In the very earliest years of your career, you as a… The strength of the firm’s brand is going to far out shadow your own personal brand. The best thing you can do is orbit the firm’s brand. Share. Amplify. Be a part of what the firm has going on. You’ll be identified as someone who is taking notice of what’s happening on social media and wants to promote the firm.
Alison Simons (23:02):
And then you can stick your hand up and say, “Hey, I’d like to contribute an article for the blog on this to topic. Can I write that?” And they’ll either give you the time to write that article yourself or share the resources of the ghost writer for the firm and put your name on it, but kind of just sticking your hand up and… Or as early as you’re ready, find out how you can engage with the marketing engine that the firm has. That’s the soonest you can do it. If you don’t, as a young professional, your trajectory will either be delayed or just a slower burn.
Stacy Jones (23:44):
What are other mistakes that you see professional service firms making all the time?
Alison Simons (23:54):
Firms don’t seem to understand that not every marketing activity will help them to achieve the goal that they want to accomplish. There are some are marketing activities that are very well aligned to certain outcomes and others that are completely misaligned. If you are building a marketing budget that is around the types of things that you know how to do, or you have the personnel in house to do, you’re probably doing things like sponsorships, advertising, right? Write a check, send in your logo kind of things.
Alison Simons (24:25):
Those are both on the awareness generating side of the sliding scale of marketing expectations. If you are looking for your firm to have ROI driven marketing, you need to be deploying different types of marketing activities. The mistake is thinking that one type of marketing is going to achieve whatever your goal is, just because that’s the type of marketing that you can undertake. Instead, it’s about setting your goals and then developing your marketing plan appropriately to reach those goals.
Stacy Jones (24:59):
Any other things that come top of mind? You’re like, “I had so much I’ve already said. Come on.”
Alison Simons (25:05):
I know. I do think firms are under investing generally, and I don’t say that just because they would be spending it with us. There are some very strong players in professional services. Accounting have some very strong players. Law firms have some players out there that are doing maybe more marketing than law. It’s pretty amazing to see. Payroll has some very dominant players. There are some kind of oligarchy happening here in professional services where it can be very hard to compete.
Alison Simons (25:38):
Just doing what you can do and adding a little bit to your budget every year is probably going to allow you to be able to invest in some of those ROI driven marketing activities, whereas those things that you can kind of do on your own are probably more on the awareness side.
Stacy Jones (25:56):
To shed some light for our listeners here, what Alison’s saying right now is that you can go out and you can pay dollars to put your brand and your logo all over the place, and it’ll be there for as long as that dollar is part of the buy that you’re doing. And then someone will come in and replace it, and really you’re nothing special. It’s just a logo that’s slapped up there. You’re sponsoring it. Maybe you get some marketing messages in there, but it’s not something that has life beyond where your spend and your dollar ends.
Stacy Jones (26:27):
With a lot of the marketing initiatives she’s talking about, whether that’s social or writing blogs or remaking over your website or e-newsletters and building your own lists and creating e-books and all of these different things that have longer tales to them. You’re spending the money investing. A lot of times you’re thinking about the fact that, I do, I really need to invest in having someone write my blog for me, or do I really need another ebook?
Stacy Jones (26:55):
These are the things that you can put out there that you can gate, that you can put call to actions on, that all drive people back to you and your website. Also, they’re all things that Google likes, Google’s super friendly to. You want to serve Google. Google is your God basically as a business owner, right? Alison’s like, “Ugh, what?” But it is, right? Search engine wise. I mean, it’s the one that’s most used. If you’re optimizing for one search engine, you’re optimizing for all search engines. But you want to be able to be found.
Stacy Jones (27:25):
You don’t want people to have to find you on page 100 when you actually can create something that is searched out by what you type in and it serves you up to your ideal customer. All those people you haven’t ruled out as not being fits. That’s how key marketing is. For our agency, we started writing our blog back in 2012. I, as an owner, started it, and now everyone on our team writes. But we have over 30,000 readers on a monthly basis.
Stacy Jones (27:53):
Once we’ve spent that time… And I pay my employees to write the blogs. They’re writing during time of work. We are not outsourcing it, because this is what we do as an agency as well internally, not for others, but internally. But I spend their hours doing this, and then they’ve created something that maybe it’s going to have a lift and maybe it’s not, but it’s there and it can be repurposed and reused. We’ve invested in content that is going to be there for a really long time. It’s driven millions of dollars in business growth for us.
Stacy Jones (28:24):
I promise you this works. I mean, in case studying, that’s why I love like touting it on this, that these types of activities work for you. No matter the type of brand you are, the type of agency you are, these work. And what Alison’s doing, she has a really good eye to what professional service firms need. From what I’m listening to and the number of people I talk to on podcasts, she does know what she’s talking about. You guys should be taking notes. There you go.
Alison Simons (28:51):
Thank you, Stacy. I agree with you. There are definitely two audiences for every blog post. You’ve got humans and you’ve got search engines. And even if professional services firms try to write on their own, they are not necessarily going to be writing for SEO. They’re not going to be choosing the right keyword, and then putting it the right number of times into the content, and then putting it all the different places on the backend of that blog page.
Alison Simons (29:17):
Marketing today is sophisticated and complex, and even our firm has specialists within it. You might call all of us marketers, but we are really all specialists within marketing, banding together to do the parts of it that we love and to do the best work we can for clients.
Stacy Jones (29:36):
Alison, how can our listeners who are like, “I do like what she’s saying,” how can they reach out to you?
Alison Simons (29:42):
Well, first of all, please do. Our website is simonsmarketing.com. You can find us on LinkedIn, and you can find us on Twitter, which is more my personal account, but we do more marketing than anything there. And that one is Alison Simons. We’d love to see you out there. We have a newsletter. We’re constantly sharing ideas that we have, and we’d love to see you on the web. Thank you so much.
Stacy Jones (30:04):
You are so welcome. Thank you, again, to spend time with us and shed light on all things professional service firms and, quite frankly, everything that you said applies to every other business too out there. So whatever. If you’re listening, there’s something for you to learn here. Thank you, Alison.
Alison Simons (30:19):
Absolutely. Thank you, Stacy.
Stacy Jones (30:20):
Of course. And then to all of our listeners, thank you all for tuning in again to another episode of Marketing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them). As always, if you’re ever interested in learning how your brand will become part of the content of television, film, podcast, music, reach out to Hollywood Branded and our team and we will chat more. And until then, have a great day and I look forward to speaking with you next week.
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