Marketing Experts Warn: Differentiate Your Firm or Drown in a ‘Sea of Beige’

All professionals receive pitches that have absolutely nothing to do with their work. In one of dozens of examples in just one day, a PR firm asked the editor of INSIDE Public Accounting Monthly to showcase a new parenting program that “helps kids find their voice and learn life lessons not taught in school.”

The flood of useless email messages is nothing new, but easy access to generative AI tools like OpenAI’s ChatGPT could mean a tsunami of bland content that could drown accounting firms that are using the same-old marketing approaches to tell their story. In a recent webinar by Hinge Marketing, two experts warned against the “sea of beige” that’s coming, laid out the potential risks and rewards of AI-generated content, and listed strategies that fast-growing professional services firms are adapting to sharpen their competitive edge.

Hinge marketing manager Austin McNair says AI-generated content will make it more difficult for readers to differentiate between the true experts versus the pretenders. Potential clients will become more skeptical and more impatient with basic information and self-serving messages. That means sophisticated, personalized content that accurately reflects a firm’s mastery is more important – and a bigger challenge ­­– than ever.

Professional service firms are already experimenting. Big 4 firm PWC is testing AI chatbots to streamline work processes. ChatGPT, which is free and easily accessible, has been embraced at the staff level. It’s easy to type in a prompt, hit return and watch the words spill out on the screen – articles, blog posts, email subject lines, advertising copy, descriptions of new services, job listings, employee handbook content, interview questions, etc. Google and Microsoft are releasing their own AI products and AI is being used to create realistic images through DALL-E 2, another OpenAI product, as well as Midjourney, Stable Diffusion, Jasper Art and others.

Hinge senior partner Karl Feldman outlined some of the risks. Administrative work and compliance tasks are ripe for disruption, he says, and AI models can produce biased and incorrect content. Then there is the question of personal data.  AI industry privacy policies are evolving, but so far there is a lack of transparency. On the upside, AI can save time in numerous ways, by pinpointing trends in marketing messages, thereby showing professionals what not to do, for example. It can lead to new jobs, such as prompt engineers, who are knowledgeable in creating the right questions/prompts to produce the specific information needed.

Prickly issues remain unresolved, however. The Harvard Business Review says that as use of generative AI becomes more common, courts are trying to establish how the laws should be applied in cases of copyright infringement, ownership of work generated by AI and use of unlicensed content.

Nevertheless, with a reported 1 million users logging onto the ChatGPT platform within five days of its release, generative AI is here to stay. As Bill Gates himself said in The Wall Street Journal, “Entire industries will reorient around it. Businesses will distinguish themselves by how well they use it.”

Some strategy suggestions from Hinge:

 Look to the high-growth firms ­– Feldman notes that professional services firms generally lag far behind their business-to-consumer counterparts in their marketing investments. High-growth firms, however, have a winning formula. “They are more prepared for this disruption, this opportunity, because they research their audiences more frequently, and they’re more mature in their journey toward digital transformation.”

 Double down on differentiation – Ensure that what makes your firm unique is meaningful to your audience and communicated precisely. Make sure your visual brand is consistent, in every web page, brochure and the like, since AI “advanced weaponry” is coming into the field.

 Up your game ­– Ad hoc marketing is all too common, McNair says, so firms should develop top-quality campaigns with a clear ROI. Customized research reports are the most trusted type of content, and case studies, webinars and podcasts can also generate high engagement. Test for success, he says. “Don’t just let things go on and on and on.”

 Highlight your experts – Buyers value industry knowledge and subject matter expertise more than any other attribute. Make sure you’re not just showcasing names and faces but the depth of experience firm professionals can apply to client issues. Firms can fight the robots with in-person networking and speaking events.

Future-proof your infrastructure – If your firm’s online presence is inconsistent, upgrade. If your firm isn’t using business development technologies like CRM to bring together data on prospects and clients, upgrade. A great website is non-negotiable, as it’s the most powerful marketing tool and business developer of any firm. If it looks dated, it’s a turnoff not only for prospective clients, but job candidates as well.

Feldman and McNair advise firms to learn about AI-generated content now or risk losing competitive advantage, but to proceed with caution. “Be wary about what you’re feeding the training model, where it lives and who controls it, and also understand that even if you’re getting the most compelling offer to click the button and generate amazing content, just like syndication before it, it’s going to be of limited and decreasing value – and could potentially land you in hot water,” Feldman says.

McNair adds, “You need to take advantage of your own knowledge, your team’s knowledge, and focus on your strategy – not just quick-hit content. It’s not going to work as well as you think it will.”


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