It’s hard to talk about the impact of social media without mention of the ‘disruption’ these new platforms are creating. The word ‘disruptive’ is used a lot these days. It’s almost becoming as popular as the word ‘strategy’. But for me, in the case of social media, it is being used in the true sense of the word.
In the relatively few years it’s been around, social media has truly challenged the status quo as a platform for communication. I’m no Marxist, but if you consider society as being dominated by one social class, what we are currently witnessing is the challenge to the dominant societal discourses through disruptive technologies.
The adoption of social media has had huge implications for society’s beliefs, perceptions, values and morals. Right across the world we are witnessing on a daily basis a tangible subversion of long-standing dominance. Social media has contributed to eroding the power of previously elite media channels. The old world is being replaced with the new. It’s the transgression from ‘atoms’ to ‘bits’. The physical encyclopaedia has been replaced by Wikipedia. Printed newspapers and magazines have been replaced by online journals and blogs. YouTube has gained a considerable foothold in the broadcasting world, displacing prominent media channels. The hegemony imposed by the ‘traditional’ news media and publishers is being broken.
Social media is a huge part of the present. And it’s going to be even bigger part of the future. But what does this mean for the professional services industry?
Social media marketing: diversifying the professional service
Social media’s application as a platform for marketing the professional services firm has, in all reality, so far showed limited progress. Why? On a general level, it’s down to the limited understanding of its role, purpose and benefits within the marketing of professional services.
Firms have remained cautious. Fear of liability from erroneous online postings. Industry regulation. Client confidentiality issues. Reputation risk. Lack of control. Investment in internal resources. Ask yourself, if firms felt comfortable that social media actually ‘paid’, would these fears ‘disappear’ within a cost-benefit analysis? (Without a doubt!)
At present, firms can generally see some future value. But many don’t (yet?). Others won’t ‘move’ until any potential value can be demonstrated and understood. As Homer Simpson once said, ‘if you don’t try, you can’t fail’.
There are those brave enough that have taken the ‘we must do something’ approach. There are those taking tentative steps. Both are slowly increasing their investments in creative engagement. Either actively interacting with followers on Twitter, or merely one-way ‘broadcasting’. A good proportion are registered with LinkedIn, but that number dwindles when it comes to those actively exploiting the opportunities for virtual networking through groups or LinkedIn answers. YouTube remains largely unexplored. Video is difficult to do properly.
Those firms further down the road with social media concede there is no quick fix. It does take time. And at present, they can only really testify to intangible benefits. Improved thought leadership positioning. Greater reach for word of mouth. Enhanced reputation. Increased website traffic. As a marketer I can appreciate the intangibles. But in the boardroom, they are almost a nonsense. It’s simply not enough. Which is fine, given there is a bigger picture stake at here. Firms have got to recognise that social media is potentially going to have an even wider impact: it’s bringing about a different type of potential client, one that’s probably potentially going to demand a change of business and marketing model to service its needs.
The rise of the ‘social client’
The first thing to realise is that there is a latent market developing online. The disruption has created a new breed of client. A client that differs somewhat from the traditional. The ‘social client’. Social clients go to their social networks of relevance to learn of a firm’s services. They may be an individual or they may be representing an organisation. They are more likely to select a firm with a social presence, one that shares their preferred networks and one that responds to their socialised questions. Social clients are influenced by their social network and emphasise the input of those who make-up their network – similar, like-minded individuals who share a common perspective and interests. Social clients evaluate the experiences of those they trust. Social clients don’t follow the classic decision-making process. They follow patterns inspired by the insights of others.
What the rise of this new profile of client will show is that social media means more than just service promotion. It’s more than a one-way tweet and a 90% LinkedIn profile. To create a competitive advantage, firms need to identify how social clients use social media to recognise a need for a professional service. Firms need to understand how social media helps provide information and allows social clients to evaluate alternative service providers. How social media factors in the final and post-purchasing decisions.
Ultimately, the question needs to be asked, do social clients want to continue their experience of your service via digital channels alone? The potential disruption of social media is a future that is driven 100% by the capability of professional services to be rendered in digital form. Is it really viable that potential clients are extrapolated from social media networks and are then expected to be serviced via traditional means?
This question should prompt professional services firms to rethink their business model to take advantage of social media. Firms should be asking themselves how they utilise social media platforms to render services entirely online, via digital platforms. Creating an unfettered online journey that can result in the purchase and delivery of a service, all via digital channels.
But where do firms even start to look at developing an online proposition like this?
The framework exists; the seven Ps of professional service marketing (for those grandmas not in the habit of sucking eggs: product, price, place, promotion, physical evidence, process, people). We just need to adapt their application in light of the new technologies. Let’s consider.
A modern application of the 7ps: how do firms go about rendering a professional service online?
Product is the element of the marketing mix that involves the research of client needs and developing appropriate products. Given the ‘evolution’ of the social client, firms must start thinking ‘digitally’. Advisory services don’t necessarily need to be delivered in person. Prospective clients obtained through social media channels may prefer to be serviced digitally. They may want to purchase services in digital form. Firms need to give consideration as to how they can do this. The tools are there. Email. Real time chat. Skype. Firms also need to consider what additional products and services can be provided using digital platforms. For example, a firm may provide an online legal advice library providing unlimited access to legal advice, documents, templates and forms as part of on online digital membership.
Some of this may not sound particularly ‘new’, and in themselves they aren’t. It’s the building of the client journey, from acquisition to service delivery and follow up, stitching all of the elements together to create a seamless online experience that needs the attention.
Price consists of the amount of money the client has to pay to obtain the service. Non-financial costs such as time, hassle and convenience are also included. Social media impacts pricing. A service completely rendered digitally results in lower costs which could be passed to social clients. Social clients won’t have to incur travel costs, or time spent in a firm’s office. In the client’s mind these factors impact and reduce price.
Firms must also realise that social networks increase price transparency since it becomes much easier through social networks to compare competitor offerings. Social clients receive encouragement and advice from the social network before making a decision. It’s through this process that they understand more about price. Opportunities can arise. Social clients can be provided with various pricing scales depending on whether the service is rendered digitally or not.
Place includes everything the firm does to make its services available to the target client. Professional service firms have always been a ‘location, location, location’ profession. But social networks have great implications for place in the marketing mix since they have global reach. What was traditionally the preserve of a ‘global elite’ with international footholds is now open to all shades of firm. Firms no longer need an office in every city to make their practice more accessible. Servicing a social client no longer needs to entail a 50 mile round trip for a client visit. Skype instead.
Social clients will expect the firm to be accessible 24/7 and operate realtime via social media networks. Firms wanting to capitalise on global reach need to take into account translation, cultural differences. Auto-responders need to operate. Remember when England sleeps half of the world is awake.
And firms must remember social media doesn’t operate in isolation. Link building, digital PR, search engine optimisation and online advertising all need to be considered in extending the geographical impact.
The promotion element of the marketing mix refers to how marketing communications are used to inform clients and other stakeholders about the firm and its services. This is currently the most understood ‘p’ in terms of applying social media. Social media offers firms a new marketing communication channel to inform its clients of the benefits of its product and service offerings, and also to assist in the buying process. New ways of applying elements of the communications mix historically can now take place. Again, firms should remember the combined effect of search, industry portals, trade associations and influential trade websites. The click path needs considering. Does the firm’s website provide a social and digital proposition? Does it contain any proposition? And effective measurement will always support social media promotion.
Services are inherently intangible and therefore cannot be seen, touched or felt. Physical evidence makes up for this. Social clients as part of their click through path will look for clues to the quality of the service they wish to obtain. They will look for speed and quality of responses through social interaction. Many times the most immediate clue in the digital world is the quality of the firm’s website. The ability of the website to promote the firm’s thought leadership. Ultimately the message that social clients should receive should be in line with their social expectations. The firm needs to research this. Firms need to reassure clients about the integrity, safety and security of their website and doing business online by adding reviews, testimonials, certificates and privacy policies. Regular opt in email communication, focused around news, comment, tips and advice will demonstrate expert and trusted positioning. And retweeting positive feedback is a valid a testimony.
Process is one of the ‘p’s that tends to be overlooked. Process refers to the ways in which the firm does business. Processes can be highly complicated or simple. Highly divergent or very consistent. Firms should consider delivering their services digitally for the social client and how this affects the firm’s service process differently. Is your firm’s service efficiently carried out? Do professionals interact in a manner appropriate to your service? Clients are not interested in the detail of how your firm works. A social client may be more impatient. Effective enquiry management systems should be established, with a strong case for automating many of the required steps in the enquiry handling process. A service rendered digitally means clients no longer have to wait for letters. Keeping social clients informed should much easier. There are a lot of potential efficiencies here to be explored.
People matter because services are intangible and clients are looking for tangible clues to determine their value or quality. An obvious clue is the people associated with the service: the consultant, the lawyer, the accountant. Social clients will prefer to use professionals who participate in social networks and provide answers to socialised questions. They perceive this to be similar to themselves. They see this behaviour as highly attuned to their needs. People need to have tools. Most will benefit from functions such as FAQS, live chat, forums, downloadable documents allowing professionals to respond more quickly and decisively when social clients make contact.
The current zeitgeist seems to show mixed emotions around social media. Maybe it’s the Jungian duality. The collective unconscious telling us that we need to be part of a group. The need to belong. To be guided by others. To like what others like. But then there’s the personal unconscious telling us that social media goes against what’s tried and tested. ‘Innovate or die’ doesn’t always feel so relevant anymore. Whereas past innovations are durable and comforting, we see modern innovations being relegated to the leagues of flatpack selling. We all have exercise bikes and fondue sets gathering dust in the shed. But this mentality is to ignore the many positives and the gathering momentum of a fast-evolving online world.
It’s disruptive. It’s impossible to predict how and when new platforms and technologies will become mainstream. But firms should be reassured that new technologies present enormous opportunities to foster deeper and more loyal relationships with prospective and existing clients.
Firms need to make sure they are constantly learning. Clear objectives, a working strategy but understandable benefits are critical to rallying support across the firm. Defined metrics tied to thoughtful strategies demonstrate progress. Listening combined with research will reveal the need for a cross-functional approach as data always spotlights the varying needs of social clients.
By embracing these tools, firms will be able to turn clients into service and brand advocates much sooner and hopefully reap the rewards from their investment in new media channels. So the key to the future of firms is to recognise that if they are to satisfy and service the needs of social clients, they must be capable of rendering services in a digital form.
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