I’m a big believer in marketing professional services with high-touch strategies that put you within handshaking distance of your best prospects. That’s why I organize panel discussions as a means for marketing my professional services firm.
Over the years, I’ve organized and moderated panels as a means of thought leadership marketing, including The Business Case for Eco-Social Responsibility and The Intersection of Business and the Environment, both of which reached socially responsible businesses (one of my most important target markets). These events were personally satisfying and presented opportunities to connect my business to industry influencers in targeted industries while showcasing my company before a room filled with hundreds of potential prospects.
Professional services firms (consultants, lawyers, coaches, etc) that practice thought leadership marketing can organize and lead panel events that deliver real value and avoid sales pitches. When it comes to marketing professional services, I’ve found few strategies as effective at drawing your target audience to you, in a non-selling way, while connecting your professional services firm with influencers, generating media coverage and positioning your business as a thought leader.
Case Study: Solomon McCown (SM&)
Helene Solomon, a principal in the Boston-based strategic communications firm Solomon McCown & Co., organizes an educational panel discussion series with the title, SM& Presents. Since 2003, the firm has organized over a dozen panel events. Panels are comprised of Solomon principals alongside guest experts, showcasing topics that align with the firm’s expertise in strategic communications while driving its thought leadership marketing strategy.
Solomon chose the panel discussion model for marketing professional services because she saw an opportunity to establish relationships with prospects, referral partners, and influencers in targeted industries. “We cover issues that position our principals as strategic thinkers to influential audiences,” says Solomon. “We invite panelists with name recognition, and a sphere of influence, which boosts the value of our events, enhances our own credibility, and creates audience and media appeal.”
Each event reflects the firm’s core focus area with a topic likely to resonate with potential clients. “As we conceive events, we apply a three-question test: What are our business objectives? What potential partners will lend credibility and a mailing list? Can we do something that no one else has done?” Solomon finds allies by researching business publications, trade associations and charitable organizations.
A recent SM& Presents panel titled, “Good Business Means Sometimes Having to Say I’m Sorry,” featured Ashley McCown, SM& executive vice president, a partner from a Boston law firm, the vice president of an insurance firm, and a principal of the American Red Cross. The publisher of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly moderated the discussion.
“This event helped us reach a broad range of industries, from corporate CEOs, to health care, to attorneys who, when faced with a client crisis, recommend strategic communications firms,” says Soloman Solomon. “Our partnership with Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly gave us access to their mailing list, which helped us reach the Boston legal community better and more cost-effectively than we could have on our own.”
The event attracted 150 participants, a perfect number to facilitate networking, and was covered in the Boston Globe and the Christian Science Monitor. The event was so well received that it was repeated for the Health Care Section of the Massachusetts Bar Association and the Newton- Wellesley Hospital Leadership Forum.
Organizing Your Own Panel Discussion
While panel events can be a fun and powerful thought leadership marketing strategy, they require strategic planning. Here are several steps any profession firm can take to make panel discussions part of marketing professional services:
Select a Venue. It’s usually easier to plan a panel discussion with an existing venue rather than striking out on your own. Business associations, Chambers of Commerce, libraries and professional organizations not only provide a ready made venue, but often welcome ideas for events they promote to their own mailing lists.
Study events calendars for local organizations, write a short description of your panel topic and consider potential panelists. Then contact the event coordinator and pitch your idea. Most panels range from 60-90 minutes, which includes intros, the panel discussion and sufficient time for audience Q&A.
Choose an Experienced Moderator. Effective panel events need a skilled moderator who can make the panelists look good, shape and pace the discussion and smoothly take questions from the audience.
Scott Kirsner (a journalist and experienced moderator) says that industry experts, journalists or knowledgeable consultants with previous moderating experience can keep panelists on message and ensure the intended theme (which attracted the audience in the first place) is delivered as promised. Check out Scott’s article, “12 Guidelines for Great Panel Discussions.”
Identify Panelists. The ideal panel comprises people from related businesses and professions, but without much overlap. An accountant, for example, could team up with a retirement planner and an accounting software expert for a seminar about small business financial strategies. Panels of 4-5 people are ideal.
Plan Questions in Advance. This is not a time to wing it. Ideally, the moderator should arrange a conference call with all panelists and solicit their input around the overall theme and contribute in the choice and pacing of questions. A 60 minute panel must be carefully structured to ensure that questions are sufficiently covered. Don’t over prepare, but agree on overall topics and flow.
Keep intros short and focused on how each panelist’s expertise contributes specifically to the talk. Ensure there are plenty of mics (for the moderator and each panelist, as well as a microphone for audience questions). The moderator should follow a rough outline that moves each topic along at predetermined time points. Have somebody in back of the room hold up a “one-minute” sign, a “30-second” and a “stop” sign that everyone on the panel can see.
Involve Your Audience. Effective panel events involve the audience. Be clear about how you will handle questions from the audience. Try to make sure that at least one question goes to each person on the panel. If at the end of the presentation no questions are forthcoming, have someone in the audience ready with an initial question to get the ball rolling.
Marketing professional services with panel discussions will help your company rise above the social media noise. Your best prospects yearn for thought leadership marketing that provides education and true networking opportunities.