Regular readers of The Friedman File know that we feel strongly about the role thought leadership can play in carving out a strong market position. In this issue, we’re going behind the scenes with one architecture firm that has gone all-in with this strategy to see how it has transformed their business.
To appreciate the full picture, let’s go back five years. As healthcare architects, Array Architects (Philadelphia, PA) had been competing against some of the largest firms in the country, but they knew that trying to keep up with those firms on portfolio wasn’t a winning formula.
They also saw margins eroding coming out of the recession. Their clients, like many, were under market pressures requiring them to stretch their design and construction budgets. It was becoming a race to the bottom. Array was also facing an ownership transition challenge. Older partners were nearing retirement and there weren’t enough emerging leaders to continue to grow the business. They needed a new approach and decided that moving to a thought-leadership-based strategy could transform the firm.
This strategy has revolutionized the firm to become a leader in its space. They have exceeded their stretch sales goals, are winning more desirable projects and are attracting the talent needed to transition the firm while positioning Array for further growth.
How did they do it? Coming off the recession in 2012, Array invested in a comprehensive rebranding effort — and emerged with a clear strategy and the determination to implement it.
A people-focused plan
“We were confident that our people can compete with anyone, anywhere, so we took ourselves to the marketplace as thought leaders,” says Carl Davis. “We went all in, and within 8 months, we began to see a significant difference in how our marketplace perceived us.”
This multifaceted effort included rethinking how they could more fully serve their healthcare clients’ needs and implementing a sophisticated digital marketing program to consistently communicate with their market.
One of the first things Array did was to have their consultant conduct interviews with current clients and prospective clients. What they learned — that their market thought they had the expertise but was not always aware of how well the firm could address their problems — informed how they developed their new brand.
They knew that they needed to do a better job gathering client and market intelligence, and looked outside the AEC industry for technology to support their strategy. The firm rolled out a new client management system using Salesforce, and integrated that with Hubspot, to develop a comprehensive digital marketing platform. They then took six months to create a baseline of content. Subject-matter experts were given deadlines, so that when the new branding and web site were rolled out, there were 30 blog posts with enough thought leadership substance to interest their market. Now, Array creates and delivers new content two to four times a month.
A content-focused culture
Implementation, however, required a shift in the firm’s culture. Array’s staff are expected to produce informative content for their target market, helping them find solutions to issues that they may be experiencing. This expectation is now written into many offer letters, and new staff, at certain levels, are expected to show up on day one with their first effort. Marketing staff, led by the vice president of marketing and business development, focus their efforts on market intelligence and managing the content marketing program.
Content marketing pieces, which include blog posts, case studies, podcasts, webinars, videos and e-books, are developed strategically. For example, when the firm hears about an attractive project coming up, the marketing staff will research the scope and request content that addresses pain points and information related to that scope. Those pieces are then sent out in targeted emails, so that by the time the project comes up, that client is familiar with Array and their services. The pieces are also added to the knowledge section of the firm’s web site.
“We don’t find clicks and hits all that important,” says Davis. “What we find important is the ability to hyper-target our potential clients with thoughtful content and see how they interact with that content and our web site. We can tell what pages they viewed and we use this information to prepare for interviews. We can also leverage our digital content many times over. You can’t do that with a lunch or dinner.”
In fact, Array’s strategy of marketing and business development has moved away from individual client touches such as dinners and cold calls, to a more cohesive “finding solutions for many” approach. The clear expectation is that in place of these single touches, their people deliver informative, valuable content to clients.
As with any big change, there were a few skeptics — at first. It helped that Array’s rebranding effort was led from the top, and that the leadership team was committed to investing in their plan. At $300,000, it was a big expenditure, especially on the heels of a recession. “We decided that if we were going to rebrand as thought leaders, we were going to see it through,” Davis says. “Today, the team would tell you it was a very wise investment.”
It was hard to argue with results: comments about Array articles at interviews, positive feedback from clients, appearing on more RFP lists and working with more of their coveted clients. The firm also leverages healthy competition among its staff by sharing results and positive feedback and actively promoting valuable content, including from junior staff.
Delivering on the brand
With a new brand comes a new way of doing business and significant changes in how Array defines its value proposition. They’ve created an “Array Advisors” sub-brand of higher value/margin consulting services such as workflow simulation modeling, real estate optimization and operational improvements.
As a result, the firm’s approach has moved from selling and delivering design services to providing more comprehensive and integrated business solutions that address specific needs of targeted clients. “In interviews, we tell clients that we are not always the cheapest, but we will provide the best value and then we tell them exactly how we will do that. As a result, we’re working with clients who experience and understand our value, and we’re doing more work that we don’t compete for.”
Not only has Array’s all-in approach to thought leadership paid off with its clients, it continues to attract the talent that the firm needs to grow and define itself as what firm leaders call “a new generation practice.” Younger staff and emerging leaders have been excited by the opportunity to establish their expertise in the marketplace. Today, three of the seven seats on Array’s board are held by people who have joined the firm in the last five years.
Is it time for your firm to think differently about your position in the marketplace — or how you convey that to your clients? If so, I’d love to hear from you. Call me at (508) 276-1101 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.