How professional services firms can edge out the competition this Q4 by refreshing communications strategies

By Kirsten Scott, Deputy Head of Financial Services

Rod Stewart famously sang, “It’s late September and I really should be back at school.” The boys (and girls) of summer are indeed gone. If you were lucky enough to have holiday time off in August, you are probably already steeped in an unrelenting race to meet Q3 objectives and end of the year objectives. After a few years of robust revenue and productivity growth, the professional services industries now expect growth to level off considerably under suffocating macroeconomic trends. Both the US and UK economies remain plagued by high interest rates and inflation, and flat growth. Experts project the UK will finish with only 0.4% GDP growth in 2023, while the US will come in around 2%. Further, analysts downgraded their 2024-2025 expectations, noting the interest rates will not drop to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon.

Legal, accounting, consulting, and other professional services leaders now return from summer holidays poised to tackle growth-hampering headwinds like shrinking margins, increased competition, talent shortages, and regulatory changes. We talked to some of the professional services sector experts here at Aspectus to glean some insights into how professional services firms can ensure they stand out in the second half of 2023 and how they should ramp up communications approaches for the rest of the year.

Appraise the competition’s media communications footprint

Communications, marketing, and PR leaders spend so much time focused inward, advancing their firms’ media and messaging strategies, that it is easy to lose a handle on what competitor firms are saying in the mediascape. It’s a challenge to break through the noise in the crowded professional services industry, and with firms being impacted by macroeconomic conditions, everyone needs to work that much harder to increase or maintain market share. Just as in other business functions like product development and client service, professional services firms should assess how competitors are talking to their stakeholders and positioning themselves in the media. And when we say assess what they are doing, we don’t just mean taking a quick scan of their website, recent media hits, or asking industry peers their opinions of the competition. We mean really checking under the bonnet.

PR and marketing managers should dig into which communications channels they are using, how frequently they are using them, what topics and themes are they talking about – and then assess which messaging tactics you should mirror, and where there could be whitespace on which to capitalize. Firms should choose a couple of top competitors and generate a landscape analysis, an assessment of competitors’ media exposure in comparison to their own. They can execute a comparative analysis of website, keywords, and SEO performance. If you can figure out what thought leadership conversations firms are having in the media, you can get a grip on how they are positioning themselves in the market. Effectively, it’s a media SWOT analysis (who said they were only for a firm’s overall business position?), and they are a great way to evaluate your position in the market and make necessary communications strategy adjustments to improve or refine your positioning for Q4.

Reassess and refine your brand messaging

Now that you know where your firm stands against the competition in the media, you can make some tactical changes to retool your approach or upgrade your marketing or PR game, wherever it needs to be. PR, marketing, and communications executives will often revisit their brand’s messaging when a firm goes through a big change like a merger/acquisition, a change in value proposition, a rebranding, or brand refresh. However, they should also periodically revisit their brand messaging platform in accordance with changing market conditions or, as noted above, competitor positioning.

A messaging house is a master comms bible document of sorts in which a company formalizes how it communicates with its target audiences and all stakeholders. This document should be a North Star that any public facing department uses to communicate to stakeholders, from prospects and talent to investors and shareholders. All too often reviewing your firm’s messaging is a task that slips to the bottom of the list. But the last couple of years have seen constant disruptions, whether it’s been the pandemic, rapid digitization, or increased ESG expectations, we have seen a massive shift in what clients value and what they want from their advisers. Communications and marketing leaders should devote time to a refined messaging house document to ensure that their messaging platform is continually consistent, aligned with overall PR objectives, and stands up to scrutiny.

Creativity sparks engagement from key audiences

Whilst trust and relationships are of paramount importance to professional services firms, that doesn’t mean there is no room for creativity in marketing and communications. Especially for marketers who feel stuck in a rut in which their digital communications have grown stale and repetitive, a concentrated effort on considered creativity can help stimulate more compelling content. Our own creative director Daniel George coined the term to crystallize how we strive to deliver elevated campaigns and content by combining our right- and left-brain talents.

Considered creativity means we use our bright creative minds not merely to be creative for creativity’s sake, but combining raw creativity with intelligent insights about both the client’s PR and business objectives and the sector’s most relevant, trending issues. The best way to stand out, grab attention, and demand action from prospects is to ignite a spark in their mind that hasn’t been lit before through bold, attention-grabbing content – whether a social post, an op-ed byline, white paper, press release, video, or other. You want to be talked about for all the right reasons, and getting creative is the best way to control the narrative, start conversations, and engage the right target audiences.

Inspire the right target audiences

As an industry that relies on human capital and expertise, its firms put a premium on optimizing how they talk to their key audiences, how they position themselves in the market, and how they communicate their brands to all stakeholders. A 2023 Mavenlink research report revealed that increased competition was the number one challenge for businesses in the professional services sector, followed by managing changing client expectations at number two. Firms can separate themselves from the competition in Q4 by refreshing their strategic marketing and communications strategies to align with tightening economic conditions, changing consumer expectations, and a noisy mediascape. According to Thomson Reuters Institute’s 2023 State of the U.K. Legal Market report, “Firms need to re-consider how they present and deliver value to their clients. The key lies in understanding and meeting client needs…” Clear communication of a firm’s value proposition requires that all internal and external communications are consistent, compelling, and convincing – it’s the only way to drive change and make a sustained impact.

If any of this has got you interested in what you can elevate your marketing strategy this year, get in touch with our team of global experts.

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