This guide provides a comprehensive overview of marketing best practices based on our 25 years of agency experience in IT marketing. While tailored for managed service providers (MSPs), this marketing planning guide is appropriate for most IT services firms. Some of the tips may also be useful for software-as-a-service (SaaS) firms, although TSL Marketing’s approach for SaaS firms is much different. This guide is intended to be useful for MSP business owners, MSP sales executives, MSP marketing executives, and other marketing practitioners.
At the outset, I want to note that while MSPs share some commonalities, every business and market segment is unique and not one size fits all. We expect 2024 will continue to see change, and that change will impact both what MSPs offer and the way in which we market. As one example, we maintain a watchful eye on AI’s impact on MSP marketing.
With that said, successful marketing involves building marketing awareness of your firm in a defined market segment and generating sales pipeline. This guide covers numerous marketing components, as listed below, along with approach overviews.
While I provide some tips on each marketing method, we spend more time discussing how to incorporate tactics into the overall marketing mix and how to prioritize marketing investment. This article will cover:
- Approach Overview
- Marketing and Segment Selection
- Data Strategy and Acquisition
- Referral Marketing
- SEO and Paid Search
- Lead Generation
- Social Media
- Nurture Marketing
- Marketing Technology
- Budget, Prioritization, and ROI
We hope the details below will be useful as you develop your 2024 marketing plans!
Worthy marketing opportunities always exceed the budget available to fund them, so MSPs should craft an approach that reflects their business needs, budget, and time horizon. When will you need to see and access the return on your marketing investment?
I like to break the approach options down into several categories:
All approaches should start with at least a basic marketing plan outlining the segments you want to support, the services you offer, your value proposition, and your tactics for reaching the market.
Referral marketing is the first, best place to start. Referrals have the highest overall return and require a low investment. Maximizing referrals first requires at least a basic professional-looking website.
While a very strong referral can compensate for a low-quality website, more passive referrals will not. For example, customers may casually mention that they utilize your services to another business owner without outwardly making a referral. If prospective customers then go to see your website, a poor website may prevent them from inquiring about your services.
Once you have at least a basic but professional website, you can stay in front of your existing network by connecting on LinkedIn and other social platforms and making somewhat regular posts with helpful content. These posts help keep your name in front of your network and create the possibility for your contacts’ connections to see your content if shared.
Finally, even sending out a quarterly email with useful information to your network helps remind your network about you and your services. For social and email, we focus on being useful and helpful with our content. A sales message is not required for this part of the approach.
Proactive lead generation usually gathers the most interest from MSPs. If your business requires more sales pipeline, lead generation often becomes a central part of your approach. MSPs like lead generation because the results of lead generation are more immediately tangible (i.e. a discussion with a prospective customer with needs).
However, note that lead generation requires a lot of time and investment and demands that an MSP be able to work leads through the sales cycle, as well as nurture longer-term leads. The level of market awareness of your firm will also impact your ability to convert leads into customers.
Building Market Awareness
We broadly categorize a set of activities designed to help your firm become recognized, known, and trusted as “Awareness” marketing. These activities take longer to show results, and the results themselves can be more difficult to isolate and quantify.
However, as a marketer, I can always tell a firm with strong market awareness from a firm without. Firms that are well known with a good reputation have stronger conversion rates from leads to customers and generate more leads from all sources.
We like to maximize the budget allocated for awareness activities to the extent that immediate pipeline requirements and time horizon allow. Some MSPs can invest very little in this category, whereas others take a longer-term view and invest most of their marketing budget here.
Now that we have reviewed the overall approach, let’s go through market segmentation and where each tactic is applicable.
Marketing and Segment Selection
It is my experience that while most MSP and IT Services firms have a good understanding of their market in general, they don’t have a strong enough understanding of their exact market. For example, while you may focus on general IT support for small and mid-sized firms in Charlotte, you may find your best customers are in a narrower size range, in certain industries, and of a certain profile, such as firms between 50 and 250 employees in health care.
Within that segment, you may do very well with doctor’s offices where you have numerous references. This can become one of several discrete segments you approach. You need to create markets large enough to support your business goals but small enough so that you can differentiate your firm. Spending extra time on fleshing out your market segments in detail can help you structure your investment to generate more success in your highest-propensity segments.
Data Strategy and Acquisition
Once you have refined your segments, you should be sure to build out a data strategy. This strategy can include what companies and contacts you want to build data on in addition to details about those firms. For example, if you have expertise in specific applications and technologies, you should plan to capture these details about your ideal prospects. You will also want to capture the current competitor(s) in each account and their contract end date.
Once you build your data strategy, you can acquire as much of the data from reputable third-party data providers as possible. Your entire customer-facing team should be trained in the core business intelligence on each prospect you want and make plans to obtain through your marketing efforts, as well as any conversations your team has with people in those firms.
Every successful IT Services firm knows that referrals are the best marketing source. Obtaining referrals starts with delighting existing customers. While this article won’t focus on how to delight customers, if you have issues with customer satisfaction, improving the customer experience will have the greatest marketing impact.
With referral marketing, we start by doing things to keep our marketing content in front of existing customers as covered below in “Social Media” and “Nurture Marketing.” You should ask your customers’ permission to write case studies about them, obtain testimonials, and find other ways to reference them as part of your website and digital presence. Finally, ask customers to provide reviews of your business on Google and other appropriate sites.
The first job of your website is to keep you from losing business. This means your website should be professional, relatively modern, and aesthetically pleasing; contain adequate content; and document your firm’s expertise. If you have deficiencies, these need to be fixed before you undertake any other marketing efforts, as your ability to win new business (except for direct referral) will be limited severely. If you are unsure where your website ranks, use our website grader to find out.
Once your website has the basics covered, we want the next step to be for the site to support building awareness of your firm’s expertise and providing such quality that prospects are inclined to inquire about your firm. For example, if you are targeting doctor’s offices between 50 and 250 employees, you should have a web page about your services for this segment along with case studies or testimonials. In addition, a portion of your blog should provide thought leadership for doctor’s offices on IT best practices.
Here are a few of our top website tips based on where we find many sites lacking:
- Your home page should be clean, with a very evident path in terms of what you ideally want new users to do.
- Your About Us page should provide numerous, “trust signals,” including details about your leadership, technical expertise, customers, years in business, awareness, and certifications.
- Provide in-depth product/services pages. On many sites, these pages are very thin and don’t provide users with the level of detail needed to have confidence in your proficiency.
- If you have vertical know-how, build out pages with details on why you can serve specific industries.
- Create offers and offer pages. Some offers can be simple, such as connecting with you on LinkedIn. Others can be more detailed and include their own offer pages. A simple example is an endpoint device security assessment or an IT policies and procedures review.
SEO and Paid Search
As long as your website is at least presentable, search engine optimization (SEO) can be considered as part of your marketing plan. Successful SEO has long-term benefits but can take time and investment to achieve. All MSPs should, at the very least, make sure their site is free of any major technical issues that keep it from being easily accessible and user friendly.
From there, whether and how much to invest in SEO depends on the size of your firm, number of locations, size of your home city and area, competitors, and ability to invest in longer-term efforts. Local SEO is particularly important, as you want to be found for long-tailed keywords, such as “Managed Service Providers near me.” I recommend that MSPs either hire a firm with SEO expertise (such as TSL) or have someone on staff willing to invest the significant time required to become an expert.
Paid Search can be considered as part of the mix for mid and large-sized MSPs. In most major markets, there is stiff competition from national and local MSPs, and the level of competition in your area may determine whether paid search is a good investment.
We recommend making sure you can track leads from paid search and that you have a good understanding of why you win or lose deals. You should be able to model out what your paid search cost per new customer will be and whether the revenue from that customer will be worth the investment. As with SEO, either hire a marketing agency, such as TSL, or have someone in-house willing to invest the time to become an expert.
Lead Generation Approach
For the purposes of this article, I refer to “lead generation” as proactive activities whose main purpose is to generate immediate leads. At TSL, we mainly use digital ads, phone calls, and emails to generate leads.
For all these methods, focus on offering something of value, capture business intelligence consistent with your data strategy, and take a soft approach. We still find calling smaller firms to be successful at generating leads. As we get into mid and larger size firms, we rely more on digital advertising. These methods of lead generation can yield results, but they do take time, focus, and a healthy investment.
When evaluating the overall MSP marketing mix, we rely on lead generation to build immediate pipeline until other aspects of the marketing mix are delivering results.
We rely on Google Display advertising and LinkedIn as our two primary advertising vehicles, although there are other digital and traditional options to consider. If we carry out our market segmentation correctly, even smaller MSPs may benefit from advertising, although this is generally something we focus on for such firms.
For mid-sized and large MSPs, we have tracked higher conversion rates at all stages of the marketing and sales cycle. We like ads that offer ungated content tailored to the market segment or ads that provide general awareness. A small portion (<5 or 10%) of a larger MSP marketing budget can be appropriate.
Other advertising methods are out there, such as local business publications, sponsorships, and even radio and billboards. I’m not opposed to considering these as part of an overall approach, but I am skeptical about the value they provide unless you are going after a very broad audience. For example, why pay to advertise to everyone who drives by a billboard when you can advertise to only those in your segment?
With that said, I am not an expert in these other advertising tactics, but I can help understand the business case, including how many impressions of the right contacts you will receive for the investment.
For MSPs, we primarily focus on LinkedIn for social media marketing. Once we have LinkedIn well covered, additional social platforms can be added. Some of the value of additional social platforms is more centered around new employee recruitment, which is beyond the scope of this article. As with other services firms, ensuring your executives have updated profiles and are always building connections is important.
We recommend regularly posting from company and individual pages offering MSP company and industry content. We also like content that personalizes your firm. The biggest value of your social efforts is staying in front of your existing network, the one where you are most likely to get referrals!
Our firm regularly gets inquiries from people who have heard about us from friends and other past customers that we have not spoken to in a while. I attribute part of this success to our social media efforts. One of the best parts of social media is that the overall investment required on social is low. We provide tailor-made courses around Social Media Coaching & Training to suit your requirements and preferred modes of participation.
We use email, social media, and other methods as part of an overall “nurture” marketing effort. Nurture marketing is a key component of awareness marketing, and one of the goals of these efforts is keeping your name in front of existing contacts and building awareness about your firm and expertise in prospects.
For emails, we focus on providing something of value and keep the sales message to an absolute minimum. As with social media, an investment here can go a long way. The biggest challenge for MSPs is to determine how much to customize emails for different segments, as the number of variations in your nurture marketing will drive uptime and investment.
Traditional mailers can also be considered for nurture marketing, although this is not a tactic we employ for our customers.
MSPs can consider events as part of their marketing mix. I have found many third-party events are of less value for MSPs that have a general cross-industry focus on specific markets. For services firms focused on specific vendor technology, vendor events can be useful, as are industry events.
I generally recommend estimating the total number of pipeline deals expected, while adjusting for uncertainty, and how many and what type of impressions you will receive. You can use those estimates to roughly compare events marketing to your other marketing options.
MSPs can also run their own events, such as ball games, dinners, golf outings, etc. I have found these are better for customer appreciation and late-stage deal progression than net-new lead generation.
I like to look at marketing technology based on the overall marketing budget and team. For some smaller MSPs, a basic investment in free or no-cost customer relationship management (CRM) and Marketing Automation platform can be enough.
For mid and large-sized MSP, a well-utilized CRM and marketing automation platform are musts. The features offered by marketing automation, such as HubSpot, make them a compelling investment for MSPs. For MSPs using ConnectWise and HubSpot, it is important to integrate the two solutions.
As important as having CRM and marketing automation is, it is just as important to make sure your sales team uses these tools. Good marketers can calibrate marketing investment over time if sales works with them by keeping the CRM contacts, leads, and deals updated.
Budget, Prioritization, and ROI
We spend a lot of time working with our customers on prioritizing the marketing components mentioned above and allocating budget to different categories and tactics. The exact marketing mix for MSPs is driven by immediate pipeline needs and the status of marketing foundations, such as the website, budget, and search competition.
The integration of the components selected is essential. For example, if we are conducting a lead generation campaign targeting law firms, developing web content for law firms and focusing on those areas in our search efforts makes sense.
Measuring ROI can be complex in marketing, but that shouldn’t stop an MSP from measuring marketing impact. We take a holistic view of all the marketing metrics and like to make sure we focus on both metrics that impact revenue (pipeline created) and more awareness-oriented metrics.
Finding Your Ideal Marketing Mix
Finally, it is important to be able to adjust the marketing mix over time based on goals, results, and opportunities. We like to formally review and adjust our efforts 1 to 4 times a year depending on plan complexity and objectives.
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Tags: Lead Generation, social media marketing, Managed Service Providers, MSP marketing, marketing planning, marketing best practices, MSPs, nurture marketing, awareness marketing, referral marketing, marketing segmentation