We’ve all seen the giant outdoor and transit signs telling us to “Ask Gary” when we’ve been in an auto accident, and for years you couldn’t listen to AM radio in the Twin Cities without hearing an ad for the “know your rights” law firm. Both are examples, albeit borderline obnoxious, of the category of professional services marketing.

While we’re accustomed to a barrage of advertising when it comes to choosing between Doritos or Cheetos, when it comes to finding professional service providers, the waters become a lot murkier for marketers.

A friend of mine, one of the managing partners at a large Minneapolis law firm, says that all prospects are not equal, and any prospect is not necessarily a good prospect.

The process by which lawyers, accountants, architects, advertising agencies and other providers market themselves has always been challenging. Making a decision about buying a snack food versus hiring an organization to retool your brand is significant, to say the least, and there are a wide variety of options and opinions about which way to go.

One thing virtually everybody agrees on is that it’s not easy.

Even though some firms may question advertising, it does have its place in building brand awareness for new firms, as well as part of an ongoing brand awareness strategy.

RSP Architects uses paid media thusly; marketing manager Tiana Young explains that “you never know exactly when someone will need an architectural firm, so maintaining a regular [media] presence is important to us.”

I did work for a regional brokerage where the entire paid media strategy was to convince the brokers they were working for a substantial firm that had the resources to do television advertising during golf tournaments, just like the big boys in New York. It was motivational and also provided reassurance to current clients that they were working with a firm of substance. And maybe that phone wouldn’t feel too heavy to all the broker trainees when they picked it up to make a cold call.

So does advertising for professional services work?

I’m struck by one of the long-running ironies about the effectiveness of such advertising: the vast majority of advertising agencies don’t advertise. Magazines like this one are filled with ads for professional services firms, but almost never for an advertising agency—yet they’ll recommend “institutional advertising” for their professional services clients.

Perhaps the dean of professional services marketing, former Harvard Business School professor David Maister, has said that the ultimate position for someone in professional services is to be seen as a trusted advisor, someone who always has the client’s best interest in mind, whether or not it means business and profits for the advisor.

It may be generating awareness, name recognition, and warm sales leads that get you into the game, but until you move from what Maister calls “capabilities, contracts and costs” to more meaningful conversations about the real problems and opportunities a business has, you’re far from walking the trusted advisor path, which is typified by a dialogue versus a sales monologue.

Like everything in marketing, technology has changed the landscape. Besides personal contact, word-of-mouth marketing is the No. 1 door opener or closer—and social media is word of mouth in an exponential cacophony of reviews, recommendations, shares, likes, re-tweets and comments.

Mass marketing—although we still see our fair share of billboards at the airport advertising a variety of consulting firms—has largely been replaced by targeted social media efforts and inbound marketing. The key to success for both is creating valuable, engaging content.

Remember, you want to establish a conversation, whether that’s through your website, LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook account. If you’re a professional services firm, you need to open a conversation in order to open the door.

Think of it like dating. Unless you’re interesting in some way to someone you’re attracted to, you’re not going to get a first date. During that first date, if you don’t engage that person to the extent that they want to learn more about you and spend more time with you, there’s no second date. Content marketing for professional services is like that: If you want someone to be interested, you have to be interesting.

The ability to discuss a subject that the target audience is genuinely interested in learning about, which can be explained in a way that is easily understood and engaging, is critical to developing great content.

“Branding professional services is broader than name recognition,” says Liz Hersey, marketing director at Foley & Mansfield, a national law firm with offices in the Twin Cities. “It’s about influencing the influencers that get you referrals and get your name out there.”

Hersey, who has been in professional services marketing for several decades, says that in marketing legal services, a lot of content is directed at other lawyers—kind of a “look how smart I am”—but the ability to generate something of value to a client or prospective client is far more important. That applies to professional services beyond law as well.

Keep in mind that just because you have something to say doesn’t necessarily mean anybody wants to hear it. Knowing your audience and what they’re interested in, and engaging them when and how they want to interact with you are key to any professional services marketing program. It’s not like you’re selling Doritos—although if you get a bad chip, I know a lot of law firms that would take the case.

Glenn Karwoski (g.karwoski@creativepr.com) is founder and managing director of Karwoski & Courage marketing communications agency. He also teaches at the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas and in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota.

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