Marketing Professional Services

Authority Marketing

Authority MarketingSometimes my blog posts are fully formed ideas that I’m sharing, or examples of best practice from my experience, or a snippet of the training I deliver.

But sometimes the blog acts as more of a conversation with myself as I explore a new concept or topic. This is such a blog post. What you read below is more like you’re looking over my shoulder as I scribble ideas in my personal journal. It’s not a fully formed idea. It’s not something you can pick up and implement right now. But it might help your thinking.

Any feedback would be appreciated.

In my recent post on vertical differentiation I highlighted that the best marketing positioning for most consultants, advisers and other professionals is not one that’s “different” to their competitors – but “above”. In other words, “we’re the best in the field” – where best translates to best results.

How do you achieve that positioning? Through what I call Authority Marketing.

Authority Marketing is the process of establishing yourself or your firm as a leader – an authority – in your field.

Why is it important to establish yourself as an authority?

Well, direct marketing guru Dan Kennedy said a rather long time ago “it’s all about the offer”.

In marketing we obsess about writing compelling copy, about design, image etc. But as Kennedy says, the single most important determinant of whether someone buys is the offer we make them. It’s the value of our product or service.

You can have copy written by David Ogilvy himself, but unless you’re offering something of high perceived value you won’t get sales. Or to put it another way: you can put lipstick on a pig…

So how do clients determine value for professional services?

Well, of course it’s dependent on the situation. Some clients just want a basic service at low cost. But to be frank, I don’t want to play in that game – and neither do most professionals.

It’s actually very difficult for clients to determine the value of a service they’re going to get from a service provider. More often than not, the service will be tailored to the specific needs of the client. So in theory, all providers offer the same value because they’re all offering the same “solution”.

What’s different is the client’s perception of how well they’re able to deliver that value – or what the risk is that they might not deliver it.

And that’s largely dependent on the perceived expertise and authority of the professional.

If the client doesn’t believe you’re an expert in your field – then the only part of the value equation you have to play with – the only way to differentiate yourself from your competitors – is through price. That’s not a good place to be.

But how many of us focus on establishing our authority in our marketing and business development efforts? Not many.

Networking is the favoured approach of most professionals – be it face to face or social. But although it’s a great way to meet potential clients, how easy is it to establish your authority in your field? Usually not easy.

Yes, they get to know you, like you and trust you.

And the old saying goes – all other things being equal, people buy from people they know, like and trust.

But guess what? If you’re competing against an Authority Marketer – all things aren’t equal.

If you’re up against someone who’s already perceived as an authority, you’re starting with a huge handicap.

Yes, I like to do business with people I know and like. But if I’m developing a new strategy for my business, or if I want to minimise my huge tax bill, or I need my case defending – I want the best (within my range). So I’ll pick someone I perceive to be an authority.

Look at most professional service firm’s websites. What do they have on them?

About Us, Our Services, The Way We Work, Our People, Our Values, blah blah blah.

Nothing to establish their expertise or authority – other than claims about their great people and leading edge thinking. No proof.

And by proof I don’t mean testimonials. They’re 10 a penny.

What I want to see is examples of your expertise. If you’re in marketing, show me some new marketing ideas. Get me excited about new insights I’ve not seen before that I can really use in my business.

And think about your own marketing for a moment.

What if instead of trying to “get in front of clients” or “establish our brand values”, the objective of your marketing was purely to establish yourself as an authority in your field.

What would you do differently? What approaches would you use that you don’t use today? What approaches would you tweak and use differently? And what approaches would you drop? And how might that make clients perceive and react to you when they first meet you face to face?

Worth thinking about.

There’ll be more on Authority Marketing in upcoming posts.

Update: I’ve developed more thoughts in this area in a more recent post on authority marketing:

Ian Brodie teaches consultants, coaches and other professionals to attract and win their ideal clients using simple, practical marketing strategies.
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  • Ian May 19,2012 at 10:47 pm

    Thanks Ann. In some ways a great strategy is just to do what others don’t do because it’s too hard – becoming an authority is a great one!

    Elaine – go for it!!!

  • Ann Rimmer May 15,2012 at 6:37 pm

    The reason many firms don’t become an authority in their field is because it’s just too hard. To be an authority (and I mean a respected one who has built up expertise, used that to deliver outstanding and sustained results for clients) requires a continuous commitment to remain an expert through ongoing training & development, being brave to try new ideas & strategies and to share your expertise. Not many companies are willing to put in the time, budget and effort required or brave enough to put themselves ‘out there’ in a public way.

    Those that do reap the rewards.

    I agree with your thoughts Ian, to be an authority is the next up from being an expert. It requires vision & commitment throughout the company and driven at a Board level to achieve & sustain.

    Few brands manage it.

    Great post, I think many of our clients would enjoy.

  • Elaine Colliar Feb 25,2012 at 4:15 pm

    Did you here the sound of a million lightbulbs going off? That was me! Having a “BFBO” Blinding Flash of the Bleeding Obvious. The thing is I am an expert, in fact I am the very best in the world (five gold medals in five consecutive years) – and yet my plans for marketing are Booooorrrriiiinnnggg!!! Thanks for giving me a kick – and for speaking in plain English – I see a glimmer of light on the road ahead for my return to the world of work.

  • Gary S. Hart Feb 16,2011 at 4:47 am

    Perhaps we should get into the “proposal shop” business!

  • Ian Feb 16,2011 at 4:37 am

    Hi Gary –

    You say it well – authority is externally granted.

    So far I’d been thinking of authority as “one up” on expertise. You’re an expert + you get recognised for it and become influential. But you’re right – there are some pople who are named authorities who aren’t experts – very dangerous!

    I really buy into the David vs Goliath angle. When we were preparing for out podcast interview together ( Tom Searcy and I discussed this.

    We’re in a really interesting situation: on the one hand, it’s getting more difficult for small firms to compete. Formalised procurement processes, the requirements for all sorts of policies and standards, etc. are piling on the bureacracy and handing the advantage to incumbents and large firms who can set up “proposal shops”.

    Yet at the same time the web is making it easier form small firms to get out and get known.

    Interesting, interesting times.


  • Gary S. Hart Feb 16,2011 at 4:04 am

    Authority is determined by third or outside party(s). One can be an expert without being an authority, and many that do not have expertise are named authorities. There are countless charlatans who are pronounced authorities without expertise that sell the emperor’s new clothes. IMHO, expertise and authority are not interchangeable and truly being the best requires both.

    Results are two of many facets that contribute to the best offering; character, client “wants”, and execution to name a few others.
    I agree that being better than the competition means providing the best results, yet very challenging to market.

    Regardless of how large my competition is in size and reputation, they never faze me. Those attributes can be pitfalls. There’s much value to be leveraged by the little guy. Goliaths are not as hungry and have less to prove than the smaller Davids. My focus is always on what the client wants and my ability to deliver.

    Thanks for letting me think out loud with you.

  • Ian Apr 26,2010 at 10:09 am

    I disagree (of course) Jon.

    I’m talking about Professional Services here – not products.

    In the professions – yes, there are niches and gaps where no one else is playing. But guess what – it’s usually for a reason. And the reason is that clients don’t value those points of difference.

    So the leader is hated because of their pricing, value or way of doing business? I promise you, in the services, there are already people in those low priced and higher value niches – and pretty much every niche that is sustainable.

    In a mature market – like it is for many consulting, legal or accounting services – the major niches that clients value are already occupied. Yes, there may be a few that others haven’t spotted – but it’s unlikely. Services are so malleable it’s easy for firms to move into niches. It’s not like they have to invest in a ton of R&D or create expensive new physical products with associated production machinery.

    I disagree too with better not being client focused. Right at the start I defined better as being delivering better results for clients. What could be more client focused than that? it’s certainly more client focused than being in a niche just because it’s different to what others are doing.

    And the reality is that although, as you say, there are older, more established competitors, few of them are really competing on authority. Look at law firm, consulting or accounting firm websites. How many are demonstrating their knowledge and insight?

    Yes, the large national and international firms do. But most professionals don’t compete with them. Local accountants almost always compete against other local accountants – not KPMG or PWC. Few consultants or coaches go up against McKinsey or Accenture. Who they do go up against is the bunch of other local players with no established authority.

    And establishing authority is certainly not about “yammering on about your superiority” – authorities just don’t do that. They prove and demonstrate their superiority in advance. They speak on their topic, they publish on it, they give away free and useful material.

    Believe me, I’ve spent a long time trying to find differentiated niches for professional services business. Sometimes – but not often – it’s possible. Usually it’s just a fools errand, and the differentiated positions just aren’t big or profitable enough to sustain the business. Far better to invest your time in establishing authority in your “big niche”.


  • Jon Pietz Apr 26,2010 at 4:44 am


    I disagree with your assertion that it’s better to promote your firm as ‘best’ in a category rather than creating a meaningful difference from competitors. Unless you are already the established leader of your vertical niche, you are likely competing with a number of firms who have been there longer and established themselves more. The idea of ‘better’ is easily the most common approach used in marketing, and therefore the least memorable or believable. Claims of superiority so often seem to ignore the most important concern of prospects: What’s in it for me?

    Every leader in a business category has people who hate them for various reasons, including their attitude, their way of doing business or their pricing vs. perceived value. This creates an opportunity to gain authority—by offering a different attitude, different approach, or different value proposition—making you the leader of your own niche. And if your difference is based on a deep understanding of the needs of your prospects, then you will be more interesting to them than a firm who is constantly yammering on about their own superiority.

  • Jennifer Liston-Smith Apr 25,2010 at 10:22 pm

    I like what you’ve added here, Ian.

    I’m reminded of a few lines from a book I value by Peter Hawkins and Nick Smith – Coaching, Mentoring and Organizational Consultancy: Supervision and Development (2006: McGraw Hill). On p241, describing the need for API (Authority, Presence, Impact), they write: (after a sentence about credibility arising from achievement / experience etc). To carry true authority in your being is embodied in how you enter a room, how you greet another, and how you hold your experience open as a resource for others, while not imposing it on those who do not ask. To fully take authority, I need to take my rightful space without embarrassment, and to stand my ground, on my ground and be well grounded physically, intellectually and ethically.”

    I imagine this might fit well with where your thinking is going.

  • Ian Apr 24,2010 at 9:03 pm

    Many thanks for your very thoughtful and thought provoking comment Jennifer.

    You’ve hit on the exact area that’s occupying my thoughts: what’s the difference between authority and expertise?

    I can feel there’s a difference, but am not able to fully articulate it yet.

    One way of putting my thinking is to say that experts are defined by what they know. Authorities are defined by people listening to them and acting on what they say.

    Perhaps authority is just the upper echelons of expertise. But there also seems to be something in there about authority going beyond just knowing stuff into having real insight.

    Originality seems to help too – starting a new field like you did, for example. Also, a lot of authorities speak from genuine personal experience – either their own, or from deep research which they carried out. They don’t just repeat the work of others.

    And authorities need an audience – people who listen to them and act on what they say.

    Just early thoughts – but many thanks for pushing the thinking forwards.


  • Jennifer Liston-Smith Apr 23,2010 at 7:55 pm

    Helpful post, Ian.
    I like your point about providing evidence of expertise and authority: “What I want to see is examples of your expertise. If you’re in marketing, show me some new marketing ideas. Get me excited about new insights I’ve not seen before that I can really use in my business.” Sound advice. That said, given the huge prevalence of blogging and special report offers etc etc, it may show expertise … is it the same as authority? Showing you have good ideas and resources is a very good marketing move. But I guess I don’t see it as being the same as being a leader or authority in the field. Could be a question of launguage, or something else?
    Having gone from being part of a handful of people co-creating a new niche (corporate maternity coaching) to becoming someone who is invited to speak at conferences and write book chapters on the subject I have seen various angles. It does feel a very different task on the one hand to be educating employers as to why it might make a difference to take up this kind of intervention (or engaging with just a few really leading employers who are early adopters): all about good ideas and evidence, to on the other hand being a listened-to voice in a fairly established field 5 years on. Both are interesting and exciting positions to be in, though. Thanks for the thinking space :-)

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