Here’s a conversation I have had more than once. A principal in an accounting partnership wants to see some firm growth. But when we start talking about measurable digital strategy, I often hear the same argument. Their existing customers, they say, came from relationships, not the internet.

If that’s how you are thinking, 2018 is a good time to think again. Embrace this idea: The prospects out there are often very different from the clients you currently have, especially if your firm has been around a few years.

In today’s world, it is extremely likely that every single one of the people who hire you will visit your website and do online research before they even make contact. They are not necessarily looking for a relationship. They are looking for a firm with the expertise to solve their problems. To attract that client, you have to embrace a different approach to marketing.

Still doubtful? My firm has done research on how prospects and clients behave for years. We have also worked with dozens of accounting firms. Our research shows there are things more powerful than relationships when it comes to driving referrals.

For example, one study showed that tactics like sponsoring an event were responsible for less than 1 percent of referrals, while social relationships drove about 21.8 percent of referrals. By contrast, visible expertise was responsible for fully 27 percent of actual referrals. How do you start down that path? You need to take some steps to modernize your marketing.

1. Embrace digital marketing. This is often the biggest adjustment. Many accounting firms are not set up to effectively market online and fewer still are equipped to track the line between marketing efforts and financial results. That has to change. A solid goal is to aim for an equal mix of online and real-world marketing activities. Research shows that firms maintaining a balance can grow up to four times faster. For firms offering professional services, effective online marketing requires a real commitment. Make that commitment.

2. Determine what works (and what doesn’t). If a marketing tactic is working, there’s no reason to abandon it. If you are securing business at trade shows, then keep attending trade shows. But the opposite is also true. If a tactic is not working, then there’s no good reason to keep at it. Determine which activities are delivering firm growth, keep those and throw out the rest. Not all marketing activities can be measured with precision, so this can be a tough assignment. But the ability to focus on tactics that work—and not waste time and resources—makes the result worthwhile.

3. Do real marketing research. Here is where a great many companies fall down. In a service business, it is extremely tempting to get caught up in the idea that you know where your firm stands in the market, what your clients’ needs are, and why they stay with your firm. But the truth even for experienced professionals is that these ideas are often based on anecdotal evidence. By conducting a survey and/or interviews to gather data on your company’s reputation, visibility, competitive advantage and other measures, you create a solid foundation on which to build your marketing program. Here’s some incentive: high-growth firms are twice as likely to conduct ongoing research.

4. Differentiate your firm. One problem facing many professional services firms: they can all sound the same. You have heard the lingo: “expert people,” “exceptional service,” “trusted advisors.” If you have heard it, so have your prospects. How do you stand out? First, consider specialization. High-growth firms are 22 percent more likely to be specialized. Specialization sets you apart, and allows you to use marketing language that resonates with the people who may actually hire you.

Can’t specialize? That’s okay. What you can do is find something that is different about your firm—something that will allow you to stand out—and work hard to own that feature or trait. It need not be unique in the industry. But it should be something substantial enough to warrant hiring you, and something that is reasonably exclusive among the client population you serve. The ability to position your firm apart from your competitors can make a substantial difference in generating business.

5. Create strategic partnerships. Strategic partnerships with firms or associations are one of the best ways for professional services firms to gain business. Look for organizations that serve your target audience, at least in part, and offer complementary services that do not directly compete with yours. Also look for organizations you can help, to facilitate a two-way relationship. When you have a prospect, approach them about cross-marketing services, passing referrals or sharing email lists.

6. Create a high-performance website. Your website should be the centerpiece of your marketing efforts, and it should not be passive. This is not static collateral like a brochure on a trade show table. This is where you can display free educational content, maintain an active blog to showcase your knowledge, introduce the experts in your firm, draw interested prospects and convert them into leads.

7. Measure. Adjust. Repeat. Successful firms watch their analytics. In fact, high-growth firms watch 33 percent more metrics than firms that are not growing. But the amount of data is not the key here. What’s important is watching the right data, doing it consistently and then acting upon it. Build a dashboard to watch the metrics you want to see—and act on insights when you see them.

No marketing program emerges overnight. But you can build a program over time that increases the number of leads and sales and contributes to firm growth, if you are willing to examine your assumptions, think differently and then work hard to implement change. Almost every firm can improve business development. Chances are your firm can too.

Lee Frederiksen

Lee Frederiksen

Lee Frederiksen, PhD, is managing partner of Hinge, a branding and marketing firm for professional services. Hinge conducts research into high-growth firms and offers services for firms that want to become more visible and grow.