Marketing: What It Is and Why We Do It

Marketing professionals at A/E firms are all too familiar with the experience of frantically pulling together responses to requests for proposals (RFPs). But effective marketing is more than just RFPs and interviews. Planning, research, networking, conferences and trade shows, public relations and communications also play vital roles in winning new clients—and keeping existing ones.

By Gwyn Jones, CPSM, Marketing Manager, SmithGroup, Washington, D.C., and Sandra Knight, APR, Corporate Director of Public Relations, SmithGroup, Detroit June 1, 2004

Marketing professionals at A/E firms are all too familiar with the experience of frantically pulling together responses to requests for proposals (RFPs).

But effective marketing is more than just RFPs and interviews. Planning, research, networking, conferences and trade shows, public relations and communications also play vital roles in winning new clients—and keeping existing ones.

Many firms spend most of their labor—and marketing budget—responding to RFPs as they come in “over the transom.” This “reactive marketing” mode—simply responding to conditions rather than trying to influence them—might have been fine in the past, but not so in today’s fiercely competitive environment.

In contrast, proactive marketing generally results in higher success rates. Why? Because marketers have planned in advance how to focus their efforts on the best markets and clients for their firms.

To plan effectively, you must know where you are, where you want to go and how you want to get there. A proactive plan provides an overall vision of where you want to be in five, 10 or even 20 years. Critical to the planning process is research and SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis. You must honestly assess your position and that of your competitors, and determine which markets are strong and growing.

Marketing is a major component of the overall strategic plan, which also includes the organizational, operations and financial plans. Once you understand the firm’s strategic vision, you can plan the specific marketing strategies to advance that vision.

The marketing plan comprises four critical parts for each target market in which your firm is currently competing or would like to compete:

  • Market analysis, for a market’s potential, as well as how it fits your firm’s expertise and experience.

  • Goals, both mid- and long-term.

  • Specific strategies and actions, to achieve goals.

  • Estimated cost (labor and expenses), the foundation of your marketing budget.

What follows are just a few of the successful marketing tactics that can be used. The key is keeping focused on target markets and clients.

Great relationships are essential

The most cost-effective way to win new work is to give your existing clients quality service so that they will come back to you for their next project. But to build your client base, you must reach out to new prospects, creating new relationships. You can do this in a variety of ways:

  • Join associations that your clients belong to. This allows you to work informally with a prospective client, establishing a relationship outside the usual seller-buyer roles.

  • Attend conferences and trade shows. This can be expensive, so be prepared to make the most of it. Meet lots of people, then follow up afterwards.

  • Speak at conferences and professional association meetings. Plan ahead, because deadlines for abstracts and “calls for papers” might be a year or more in advance. Speaking at these events gives you many benefits including establishing you and your firm as an expert.

Know your prospects

Continued research helps you stay on top of upcoming projects and learn what’s happening before your competitors. Meeting with key decision makers before an RFP comes out is a great way to position your firm. And your prospect may feel free to talk about work that hasn’t yet been advertised.

Communications—online and off

Regular communications that keep your name and expertise in front of your client include the following:

  • Targeted mailings, traditional or electronic, can be effective tools to let prospective clients know about your firm’s achievements. Repetition is key. One postcard won’t do. Only after several will the recipients begin to connect with you. But with e-mail, be careful not to send so much that you become an annoyance.

  • Websites should be more than online brochures. Think of ways to keep people coming back to your site. Published papers, press releases, company newsletters and useful industry links all transform a website into a dynamic resource.

The PR effort

Who should handle PR? Someone within your organization? An outside consultant? Firms that want a strong media presence sometimes “test the waters” by contracting with a consultant. An outside PR pro can bring established media contacts and specialized training in communications and writing.

On the other hand, on-staff PR specialists can be growing assets. Immersed in the firm, they can become increasingly effective at communicating the firm’s expertise and experience. They also have the advantage of proximity to their technical sources.

And as your PR program grows, you can always augment in-house expertise with specialty consultant services.

Getting some publicity

Have you ever scratched your head and wondered, “Why did those guys get that article? It should have been us.” News and feature articles rarely happen on their own. They are often the product of PR professionals’ careful research, evaluation and packaging of the firm’s achievements. PR professionals also do the media targeting, to identify the best fit, and the determined follow-through over weeks or even months. Thoroughly getting to know your media targets—and their specific needs, deadlines and preferences for receiving information—is vital.

But where to start? The easiest thing to offer the media is your people. News releases on your firm’s key staff additions and advancements can quickly gain outside recognition for their specific experience and expertise. “People PR” also helps heighten internal morale and productivity.

Don’t keep work a secret

Successful project publicity is another effective tool. While firm-published project stories are acceptable and widely used, project news coverage offers valuable outside credibility. Gaining a client’s approval for disseminating a story about their project can be time-consuming, but it’s worth it. An added bonus is the pride your team feels upon seeing their hard work recognized by the media.

Participating in awards competitions is also an important part of a PR program. Accolades and exposure for a winner can be significant. Take time to identify and enter competitions. And don’t stop entering if you don’t win right away.

Firms that maintain successful project publicity and awards programs don’t stop there. They often take the extra step of funding professional article reprints. In addition to inserting the reprints into qualifications or proposal packages, smart firms also develop personalized, direct mail programs to get the reprints into the hands of impressionable clients.

Quality and responsiveness

As in all marketing efforts, public relations must be flawless and responsive. Your ability to serve as a news source can quickly diminish if communications contain errors or incomplete information. And you can damage your firm’s relationship with the media if you are too busy to return an inquiring re-porter’s calls. Make sure such duties are in the hands of dedicated, experienced PR people. It can help ensure your credibility and “preferred source” status.

Wrapping Up

All of these activities help establish your firm as an expert and a resource—the one to go to for the services you provide. Most importantly they help you create relationships with your prospective clients so that, when they have a project, they think of you first. Your proposals are targeted and specific because you know what they care about and want. And, when you make it to the interview, you’ve already convinced them that your firm is the one for the job.