How to think like a marketer
There are very few books about marketing written specifically with financial businesses in mind, but Think Like A Marketer, a new book by KATE COLBERT, is one of them.
Based in Wisconsin, Kate runs a consultancy called Silver Tree Communications, which works primarily with advice firms.
In this in-depth interview, she explains why it’s so valuable for advisers to develop a marketing mindset; how to work out what your “story” is; the importance of having a strategy; and how to maximise the return on your investment.
Kate, thanks for your time. Explain how you got into this field. I hear you originally wanted to be an English professor!
In short, I’m a writer and a storyteller and I love understanding what makes people, including customers, tick. Those talents and interests are a great combination for a marketer, whose job it is to discover and articulate brand stories.
But I’m an accidental marketer. I started my career with the intention to write and to teach others to write. Yes, I finished my Masters in English composition and comparative literature with a starry-eyed plan to become an English professor, but after just a few years of classroom, I was ready to do more. So I started writing articles and editing columns for a high-tech industry magazine.
It was work I loved, and without realising it, I was also surrounded by the worlds of sales and marketing. It was my job to absorb the marketing that companies were targeting at editors like me. I was surrounded by communications professionals but didn’t see myself as one.
I then founded a consultancy called Silver Tree Communications. I stopped being a consumer of PR and marketing and began generating it, representing some of the same technology companies that had previously pitched me for stories.
Of course, there’s an obvious connection between English literature and what you do now because essentially you’re a storyteller, aren’t you?
Yes. Organisations ― primarily higher education, healthcare and professional services organisations ― hire me to help them understand the stories that their brands can truly and ethically own in the marketplace. And once they understand what makes them meaningfully different in the minds of customers and others, I help them share that story in ways that stick.
What I find with many financial advice firms is that they struggle to work out what their story is. Some even doubt they even have a story to tell. What advice would you give to them?
I would offer two pieces of advice to financial services businesses in this regard.
First, ask yourself why you got into this business in the first place — who you wanted to help, and why, and how you would do that. And ask yourself what makes the way you provide these services different and valuable ― meaningful ― to the clients you serve. If you can articulate this, then work on refining and clarifying that story in everything you do — on your website, in your initial conversations with your prospective clients, and so on.
If you’re not sure what makes you meaningfully different in the eyes of your stakeholders, go and find out. Conduct a client survey or some focus groups, and do them in truly scientific ways. A little market research goes a long way.
Secondly, make yourself a rule book ― write up a brand platform of sorts. This doesn’t have to be the polished, perfect, customer-focused language that will go on your website. But draw up a thoughtful internal business document about your story and about the rules for telling it. Do you have a few go-to headlines or phrases that sum up who you are and what you offer? If you had to tell your company’s story in one paragraph, what might it say? What are the descriptions and kinds of words you want people to use about you? Are there words and phrases you will not use? Get clear on all of it, because it matters.
Are you an “adviser” or a “planner?” A “consultant?” An “analyst?” Are there things about your processes, your services or your personality that might delight or surprise your clients? How do you talk about those things, and do you address those points of difference in the first words you share when you talk about your business?
You’ve recently published a new book, Think Like a Marketer, and it soon which immediately rose to the top 1% of all business marketing books on Amazon. What was your motivation in writing it? And who specifically is it aimed at?
I wrote this book because I knew that a shift in mindset could change everything for someone’s business. I know this because I have seen it, over and over, with my own clients.
I believe that thinking like a marketer is the secret to taking your business from mediocre to meaningfully different. It’s also the secret to moving your organisation from status quo to success story, and from busy to profitable.
I wanted to create an easy-to-read, practical guidebook ― for all business leaders ― that offers fresh insights into the actions and attitudes that can accelerate your business success, sharpen your daily work, and balance your efforts to create value for customers while capturing value for the bottom line.
This book is for the business owner without a background in marketing; the business professional in a small- to mid-sized company or a Fortune 1000 company; the professional speaker, blogger or thought leader; the non-profit professional; and, yes, even for the marketer!
The data tells us that financial advisers tend to spend considerably less on marketing than other types of business do. Some tell me they don’t need to do any marketing because they have enough clients already. What’s your view on that?
If they have the right clients, that’s great! And if those clients are willing to pay the fees (i.e. if your profit margins are high enough), and are referring the perfect prospective clients, then perhaps those advisers don’t need to worry too much about marketing, in its formal sense. But here’s my view. If you don’t know what kind of story your clients are telling about you, and you haven’t been clear to them about the meaningful difference your business wants to own, you might always feel too “busy” taking care of clients who aren’t quite the right fit.
If you own a financial planning firm and you think your true, differentiating talents are in working with people going through major changes that impact their finances (like divorce, a job change or death of a spouse), but your clients don’t realise this about you, they’ll keep referring 20-somethings who need an hour of advice on how to create a budget.
Thinking like a marketer requires balancing the degree to which you are creating value for your clients or customers and capturing value back to the bottom line. Are you giving those clients enough? And do you know how to monetise appropriately the services you offer?
Of course, the fact that marketing spend in the advice sector is relatively low potentially gives those firms who are willing to invest in it properly a big commercial advantage, doesn’t it?
Yes, absolutely. When it comes to telling a great story and connecting in meaningful ways with clients and prospects, a little investment can go a long way. A little bit of market research can help you achieve what I call “data-driven differentiation”, and sometimes small investments in marketing ― an improved website, some strategic public relations, paid advertising on channels like social media or streaming radio ― can reap big results.
Think about who you wish would hire you, then make sure you’re visible, or “findable”, wherever they are. If you think there are, for example, many independent, entrepreneurial women in your region who need help with managing their investments for retirement and if your firm is the only one that pops up in a Google search to that effect, you’re going to win.
One of the key lessons from your book is that firms should communicate for connection and meaning, not just to win business. Why is that so important?
If you want your clients to think of you often ― especially in moments when they could expand the scope of their own work with you or when others ask them for a referral ― you need to communicate with them for connection and meaning, not just to transact sales. If they only ever hear from you when you’re sending them a retirement portfolio statement or when it’s time for them to schedule their annual review appointment, your relationship with them is merely transactional. And I’d argue that’s not a real relationship at all. If your communications focus almost exclusively on some sort of “buy now” message, your clients eventually will say, “bye, now”.
What’s more, people are smart, and they are holding brands accountable today in ways like never before. Customers will increasingly make you “prove it” when you tell a story and make a brand promise. Savvy consumers (like Gen Z, who are fearless about calling out bullshit) are sick of generic messages. If you’re an accounting firm with the tagline “Where every number counts,” consumers will consider you generic — because any accounting firm could use that tagline. Challenge yourself and your company to be “the product or service that…” [fill in the blank]. “The consultant or advisor or accountant or financial planner who…” [again, fill in the blank]. Make that sentence — that “brand promise” to your customer — as specific and meaningful as possible. Be meaningfully different.
In the book, you also emphasise the value of having a marketing strategy. Perhaps you could expand on that?
It’s vital to make overarching decisions about how, when and where you will market. Those decisions can drive a strategy, and that strategy can help you make everyday decisions.
Imagine, for example, that you manage financial portfolios that range from £50,000 to £5,000,000 and that you have decided to provide very high-touch, special marketing to clients who have invested more than £2,000,000. You will call them more frequently, host special events for them, perhaps, and send special direct mail items to them. You’ll still communicate with your investors who are at lower investment levels (plenty of email and social media, for example) but the truly time-consuming and expensive marketing tactics will be focused on your high-value clients because your ROI is highest there. This “high-touch for the high rollers and mass media for everyone else” approach is a strategy.
If you are clear in your mind on the strategy, you and your team will be better able to evaluate opportunities for marketing tactics ― like whether it makes sense to host a cocktail party at your offices for clients at the holidays, or whether you should produce a monthly e-newsletter or a blog series.
In your book, though, you make the distinction between strategy and tactics. You need to stick religiously to your strategy, you argue, but your tactics should be far more flexible.
Exactly. Using the example above, you might challenge yourself to try new tactics for communicating in service of the strategy. Perhaps you’ve never been comfortable with being on camera for video, but you know it could mean a lot to your top clients if you shot a short video of you wishing them a happy holiday and reminding them of three tips that might make for a less stressful season for them. Then let go of your fear of the camera, and make the video. Be willing to try new things ― direct mail, streaming radio, paid internet search ― if you believe they might be effective in building your brand and growing your business in profitable ways. Try new things, measure how they are working, and make adjustments along the way. Marketing, even when rooted in a solid strategy, involves a great deal of experimentation and flexibility.
What would you say are the biggest marketing mistakes that advice firms make?
They settle for generic messages, they forget to provide communications and experiences for their clients that create warm, positive emotional responses, and they focus too heavily on the numbers and not the stories that the numbers tell.
What’s your view on video content and the value for advisers of having it and sharing it?
Video is an important tool, especially in an era when people are pressed for time and aren’t likely to read long articles. And financial advisers work in a very personal space ― money is personal and the management of it requires trust. People will only trust you if they see you and hear from you often. Your humanity matters immensely in this industry, and video is an ideal way to convey your humanity, practical advice, feelings and unique points of view.
Again, what are the most common mistakes advice firms make with their video content, in your view?
Aside from making the mistake of not trying video at all, some firms produce very academic, stiff, formal videos that miss the mark. They are produced in a very “left-brained” way and they miss the opportunity to tell stories, to make people smile, to appeal to the viewer’s propensity to be inspired, touched and convinced. Great videos (even about financial topics!) make appropriate use of humour, candour and story.
Finally, if there’s one piece of advice that you would give to a firm that has tried some sort of marketing strategy but with limited success, what would it be?
Quit guessing about how to market, and go to the source of all truth ― your clients. Hire someone who is an expert at revealing customer insights and have them survey, study, interview and observe your clients.
The best marketing strategies and plans come from the data. Rather than setting aside budget next quarter for advertising, use that budget to do a little market research. The results of your research, if done well and analysed in a truly intuitive way, will tell you everything you need to know about how to communicate (and market) to your clients and your prospects.
Adviser 2.0 is produced by Regis Media, a boutique provider of content and social media management to financial advice firms around the world. For more information, visit our website and YouTube channel, or email Sam Willet or Christina Waider.