PR TECHNIQUE: Marketing your firm with the help of clients

Client testimonials are a great way to promote our agency. But the size of your firm and its areas of expertise should also play into your approach.

Client testimonials are a great way to promote our agency. But the size of your firm and its areas of expertise should also play into your approach.

In March 2002, Magnet Communications kicked off a new advertising push - a series of sleek creations that would highlight the work the agency had done for clients such as JetBlue and Toyota. Dubbed the Results campaign, it was a marked departure from Magnet's previous ad efforts, which focused on the agency's personnel and their areas of expertise. The change in strategy was as much a reflection of the state of the industry as it was an evolution in the marketing philosophy of a growing business. In a struggling economy, with PR budgets slashed, Magnet sought to appeal to prospective clients' increasingly pragmatic what-can-you-do-for-me mentality. "Clients are looking for agencies that are providing practical solutions," says Rob Coburn, Magnet's CMO. "They don't respond as well to big concepts now. We realized we should be talking about our clients." Magnet, of course, is not unique in understanding the importance of calling attention to success. Few are the agencies that don't publish case studies that outline their approach to challenges presented by clients. And while it's difficult to find someone in the business who would dispute the importance of a client's recommendation, there is far from a consensus as to how to go about using clients to help secure new business. Strategies and tactics vary according to the size of the firm in question and the type of work it does, among other factors. Ronn Torossian, president and CEO of 5W Public Relations, will interrupt his own business pitches to ask a prospective client if it wants to call a current one, right then and there. On the other hand, Hill & Knowlton VP Lily Loh says, "We don't actively volunteer our clients unless we think there's a tie-in." But H&K does publish glossy brochures highlighting its recent work. Morgan McLintic, VP at Lewis PR, holds networking sessions with a mix of current and prospective clients to complement the firm's direct-marketing efforts and written and video testimonials. Boutique Laura Davidson Public Relations, in contrast, relies solely on word-of-mouth from clients and the media, and can get away with spending virtually nothing on new-business procurement. But, Davidson cautions, she benefits from working in the tight-knit travel area. "People in our industry talk to each other," she says. For those who have to put more resources behind new-business efforts, several tactical issues arise when a marketing strategy leans heavily on client endorsements. At times, simply waiting for word to get around causes its own problems. "It's a lovely way to do business," says McLintic. "You've already got credibility. The disadvantage is that it's hugely unpredictable. You don't know when you're going to be referred. It's difficult from a business-planning perspective." Another issue is getting clients involved. PR people tend to agree that good relationships are the only ones worth publicizing, so getting buy-in should not be a problem. Yet it's important to spread these duties among a client list so no single client is overburdened with providing testimonials. And, it almost goes without saying, the clients and campaigns need to be chosen carefully. Steve O'Keeffe, founder of O'Keeffe & Co., says his firm's marketing efforts often focus on awards. But, he adds, "Every one of our clients can be referenced." This typically isn't the case for firms that do a lot of crisis planning or crisis-response work, and have clients that don't want their brand and experiences associated with a PR firm. These situations require a higher degree of sensitivity. For example, Ed Moed, co-founder and managing partner of Peppercom, says his agency asks clients whose relationships with the firm are already publicly known to fill this role. "This is sensitive information," he says. "We try to be smart about how we market it and how we use it." In all cases, it's important to be open with clients as far as how they will appear in marketing materials. Magnet's Coburn says he includes them in the "layers of revision" that are involved in crafting the firm's ad campaign. "We haven't had any clients refuse," he adds. The text of the Magnet ads is designed to illustrate business problems and solutions that prospective clients can relate to their own experience. "Clients think through analogy," he says. "We wanted to say that PR and strategic communications address all of the fundamental business challenges that clients face. We wanted to put out clear and iconic challenges that well-known brands have faced." Aside from ads and direct-marketing strategies, there are other ways to highlight past successes. Posting the raves of a client executive on the agency's website is a popular one. Lewis PR has put a twist on that by recording video testimonials and streaming them on the site. Testimonials, says McLintic, "have a lot more impact. They can see it's a real person. They can hear the accent. They can see the glint in the eye and hear the passion in the voice." But even this isn't as good as a spoken recommendation. "Hooking up your prospect with a current client is invaluable," McLintic says. "That's better than any rent-a-reference." The motivation behind all this, of course, is credibility. "Absolute gold," Moed calls a good client testimonial. "It's really important. These are the words that are going to mean something and show that we're not just blowing smoke." References alone, McLintic says, won't do as much good by themselves as they will when combined with meeting business partners, telemarketing, advertising, and going to trade shows. "Good marketing is a synergy of these things," he says. ----- Technique tips Do be open with clients about how they are going to appear in marketing materials Do choose case studies that are broad enough to appeal to a wide variety of potential clients Do make clients available to prospects for a verbal recommendation whenever possible Don't make a few of your clients responsible for speaking in all of your testimonials Don't make your case studies seem like they're solely the work of your agency when the client played a big role in the PR success as well Don't rely solely on testimonials and case studies when you can use a host of marketing tactics

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