For technology services firms, this is a time of tremendous opportunity – and increasingly complex challenges. As the marketplace grows more hypercompetitive than ever before, effective IT marketing becomes absolutely essential.

But which challenges are most pressing for technology services firm, and which initiatives are they prioritizing in order to get ahead? The Hinge Research Institute surveyed 530 professional services firms to better understand the business challenges that will define 2015 for IT services firms and give them a competitive edge. The findings revealed powerful insights about the new shape of the IT marketing landscape.

Consider, for example, the top five business challenges cited by technology services firms.

These answers are particularly instructive when compared to results from across other professional services industries. Like firms in other areas, attracting and developing new business is the top priority – and it will only grow more essential as more and more competitors enter the technology marketplace to vie for a limited number of buyers.

There’s a major difference between technology services and other industries, however: the need for innovation ranks much more highly in technology. That should come as no surprise. New ideas are the lifeblood of a technology company today, allowing the organization to continue into the future rather than being supplanted by competitors with similar or better offerings. These findings confirm that in the technology industry, innovation is much more than a buzzword – it’s an urgently felt need, and the foundation of continuing business.

It’s clear that the industry is in flux. So what is driving the transformation of the technology services marketing space?

There are several key trends reshaping IT marketing today, and in order to craft effective marketing strategies and solutions, we need to first identify and thoroughly understand these trends. Let’s take a look at some of the most influential changes sweeping the industry.

Buyers of technology services want to be educated

A recent collaborative study conducted by RAIN Group and the Hinge Research Institute reveals a striking phenomenon. In an analysis of competitions for professional services sales, the winning firms consistently did one thing distinctively: they educated their prospects.

Technology services buyers are looking for answers and education. They want to know how to solve their problems today – and the firms that help them accomplish this build credibility while positioning themselves to provide services in the future. There’s a powerful side effect, too. Even if a visitor who finds answers in your site doesn’t engage you for services, they may refer you to another buyer based on your expertise. In fact, over 80% of firms have received such a referral from a firm they had not worked with directly.

Social media is maturing

Social media is far past having to prove itself as a viable marketing channel – in terms of raising visibility – and credibility – for firms, it’s a necessity. LinkedIn is a fixture of the professional services world, and among the top ways that buyers check out potential services providers. With social media platforms’ new maturity, however, new risks are emerging. While it’s impossible to fully control what employees put out there, rules and best practices to guide effective social media usage need to be put into place. Not only will this encourage participation across the firm (no guidelines at all often feels overwhelming to the uninitiated), but it offers a blanket of protection, just in case.

Technology as a Service (XaaS)

In years past, there was an entire alphabet soup of as-a-Services – but as the subscriber-based cloud services approach has clarified and matured, it’s come to be encompassed by the umbrella term, XaaS.

Going forward, this model represents a strong revenue opportunity for tech firms. In fact, research conducted by ITSMA shows that while many tech firms are experiencing flat growth, firms that anchor their business models around XaaS are growing faster.

XaaS represents a critical opportunity, but it also raises a challenge for IT marketers. Marketing services is significantly different than marketing products – so tech firms that used to be focused purely on products, whether hardware or software, are now having to learn strategies for services marketing. Not coincidentally, marketing services requires a concerted focus on educating your audiences.

Marketing to the C-Suite

A convergence of IT with business strategy has been fueled by the rise of big data. Cultivating transparency in an organization’s data and mapping that data to business strategy have become crucial to firms’ success. As a result, the role of the CIO has transformed – and marketing to the CIO is about communicating technology benefits just as much as it is communicating about business benefits.

Relatedly, the convergence of IT and business strategy has paved the way for new C-Suite roles. Beyond the traditional CEO/CIO/CMO, there are now Chief Digital Officers, Chief Social Officers, and Chief Content Officers. As the C-suite has expanded, so too has the opportunity and need to create compelling messages around XaaS and its strategic benefits. When you’re communicating with the C-suite, it’s important to show how IT ties to business strategy.

Now, we’ve analyzed how the technology services marketplace has changed, but how can firms adapt to the shifts and get ahead?

6 Essential IT Marketing Strategies

For technology services firms, there are six key strategies that can help develop a competitive advantage.

1. Research

By conducting research on your marketplace, you’ll know your clients’ needs and expectations better — which puts you in a position to serve them more effectively. Market research also gives you insight into how your processes are performing. You can develop a more objective, thorough understanding of which aspects of your firm are performing best, as well as insight into which services you should offer.

This is a philosophy that should be familiar to many in the technology services industry: with more data, you can make more effective decisions. Our own research has shown that firms that conduct systematic research on their prospects and clients grow three to ten times faster – and are up to two times more profitable.

2. An Impressive Website

In the past, many tech firms grew by word of mouth. The technology almost sold itself, so they didn’t have to market much – which is why many tech firms have poor websites with poor user experiences.

These days, though, particularly in the technology services industry, your website must be impressive. For clients, it is a direct indicator of your credibility. Our research on referral marketing shows that an unimpressive website is among the top reasons that buyers rule out referrals.

But your website isn’t just a tool to help you avoid getting ruled out. It serves as the hub for your online presence, joining expert content, explanation of your services, social media platforms, and more. That’s why, according to our research, 80 percent of buyers use your website to check you out – making your website the most common source for information about your firm.

Remember, too, that your website has to look impressive however it is displayed, whether on a phone or a tablet or a desktop. Mobile browsing has become so important that Google is making mobile-friendliness a factor in search rankings. For these reasons, you should ensure that your site leverages responsive design to adapt to the form factor of a visitor’s device.

3. Cultivating Visible Experts

Remember the importance of client education? In addition to satisfying an audience demand, producing educational content helps build the profile of individual experts within your firm. In fact, this process is essential for technology firms. By building the profile of professionals within your firm, they can eventually become Visible Experts – the sort of industry rock stars who headline conferences, attract both business and talent, and come to define a firm.

Visible Experts are such a powerful asset because of the “Halo Effect.” When audiences view one of your experts as authoritative, that glow transfers to the firm as a whole. Your firm’s increased status transfers in turn to other individual professionals within the organization, who can use the added credibility to build their reputations as Visible Experts. It’s a positive feedback loop, and it’s a powerful advantage for technology services firms.

4. Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Like the technology services marketplace as a whole, SEO is constantly evolving – and it’s crucial to keep up. Yesterday’s best practices can become today’s cause for penalty. But in a hypercompetitive environment where visibility is critical, effective use of SEO is mandatory.

What do firms need to know about SEO? The key is this: “on-site” SEO (in a nutshell) increases your site’s relevance through strategic use of targeted keyword phrases associated with your services and expertise, in combination with a strong technical SEO foundation on your website.

“Off-site” SEO increases your site’s perceived authority through earned links, social media, brand mentions, and external thought leadership pieces like guest articles. For a more detailed plan of action, we’ve developed an SEO checklist for IT services firms.

5. Content Marketing

Again and again, we return to educational content – and that’s because it is the engine behind your entire IT marketing strategy. In fact, the “content funnel” is key for IT services marketing, attracting relevant audiences, and working to drive closer and closer engagements that qualify leads and ultimately generate new business.

Content marketing encompasses a variety of content types across a variety of channels, including your own web properties – your website, blog, and social media presences – as well as other web properties. Through media, professional partners, content syndication, and guest blogging, you can spread your expertise to a range of new audiences.

And this is the core goal of content marketing. By educating target audiences and addressing their challenges through content, you will build credibility and visibility that will ultimately lead to new business and to growth.

6. Social Media

It’s a fact: social media is a key factor in the growth of IT services firms. It’s an essential channel for not only networking with people in the marketplace and participating in industry conversation, but also sharing your content and driving engagement with your audience.

As we discussed previously, a more mature social media environment means new challenges, and drives the need for new rules. In order to take advantage of the benefits of social media, IT services firms must learn how to do it effectively. At its best, social media is an environment to demonstrate your leadership in the industry while engaging with other expert content and sharing your own.

With the six strategies above, your firm will be well-placed for IT marketing success. Do you have thoughts on the trends reshaping the technology services marketplace? We’d love to hear your perspective in the comments.

For more on how successful technnology firms are using online marketing to grow faster and be more profitable, download the Online Marketing for Professional Services book.