The 3 Eternal Truths of Thought Leadership

In this final post of a three-part blog series, I discuss what will never change in the still-nascent and fast-changing field of thought leadership. (The first post examined what has changed, and the second predicted the biggest changes ahead.) I just can’t imagine the following three elements ever becoming less important, no matter how much technology changes the way ideas travel, people communicate, and managers make decisions:

  1. The elements of compelling content – content that gets people to buy professional services, software, hardware or some other complex, expensive and often high-risk offering.
  2. Presenting in credible channels you don’t control – No company’s marketing channels can ever have the credibility conferred by other firms that sell only the platform (publishers, conference organizers, etc.).
  3. Having and sticking to a topic strategy -- carefully determining what marketplace issues to address and ignore, and developing and marketing ideas on the right topics over an extended period of time to gain traction. It takes time for people to absorb and kick the tires of an idea, and ultimately act upon it.

The Elements of Compelling Content

What makes for a persuasive argument is not going to change in the future – especially, two elements that we’ve written about for years as being essential to thought leadership: a novel and proven solution. Companies trying to sell other organizations on their software, consulting, law and other products/services need thought leadership content that communicates new ideas. (If they’re the same old approach to solving the problem, why switch to another firm?) They must also describe solutions that have proven to work by pointing organizations that have adopted them and gotten results. Otherwise, an argument is just interesting theory. 

Other people have their own criteria on what makes for persuasive ideas for improving the way organizations run. Ours are similar to what it takes to get an article in Harvard Business Review. And they’re mostly aligned with what Dan and Chip Heath laid out in their 2007 bestselling book "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die." (Their “simple” is akin to our “clarity”; their “unexpected” is like our “novel”; their concrete is like our “practical” and “rigorous”; their “stories” are like our “validity” through examples. But their “emotional” criterion is different.) 

You can spend heavily on getting a point of view in front of your audience through social media, live events, and more. You can also spend a lot to make your content look more visually appealling (e.g., nice photos and spiffy data visualization). But if your core argument is weak, all the marketing and graphics will be a waste of money.

Think about this: Do you remember a classic business book or Harvard Business Review article because of its graphics or because of its core ideas? Was Clayton Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma” a breakthrough in business thinking because of elegant visuals? Sure, the graphics that depict Porter’s value chain, Jim Collins’ hedgehog concept, and Hammer/Champy’s reengineering diamond are memorable. They helped people grasp the concepts. But it was the explanations behind the graphics that did the convincing.

We believe in a variation of what the anti-apartheid South African cleric Desmond Tutu once said: “Don’t raise your voice. Improve your argument.”

 

Presenting in Credible Channels You Don’t Control

Every B2B firm competing on the basis of thought leadership must have its own marketing channels – its own publications, seminars, blog posts, and so on. Without them, that firm is at the mercy of magazines and newspapers that don’t see merit in publishing its ideas; conference organizers that view its speakers unworthy of speaking roles; and reputable book publishers that deign its proposals unfit to pursue. 

What’s more, that firm won’t be able to nurture numerous discussions in venues that potential clients view as educational rather than promotional. To wit: If you’re unsure of investing $1 million in software you may not need and from a firm you don’t know well, would you rather learn more about its software and the firm in a seminar or in a high-pressure sales meeting? 

Nonetheless, B2B firms that market their expertise only through their own channels will fall short too. Why? The credibility conferred by a highly respected third party can make a huge difference in whether buyers put stock in the sellers’ ideas. I could publish an article in a Bloom Group publication, but if I published same words in Harvard Business Review my ideas will be far more credible.

Everyone knows that it’s easy to publish in one's own publications (not that we should lower our standards). Most B2B marketing professionals I know of understand how difficult it is to get an article accepted by a top-tier publication, whether management or academic journal or mainstream business media. Same with presenting at a seminar that my firm would run vs. one run by a highly respected conference firm. 

In surveying both buyers and sellers of consulting services over the last five years, we have found that both groups value such third-party thought leadership channels more highly than they do a B2B firm’s own channels. They apparently value publishers, conference organizations and other groups that set high content standards. They're far less likely to waste their time and money shopping for expertise through those channels.

 

Having and Sticking to a Topic Strategy

With more and more B2B firms investing large sums to be thought leaders, the potential for content fragmentation grows as well. By this I mean producing and marketing content on a multitude of often non-related topics, rather than focusing on fewer and more related issues. This is like going to a restaurant that claims to be excellent at a half-dozen ethnic foods (I’ve seen new ones that claim mastery of Japanese, Chinese AND Indian food), and isn’t good at even one. Gaining deep expertise requires focus. 

Scattering resources across too many unrelated topics is unlikely to produce deep and innovative content – i.e., profound and new insights on a problem in the world and how to solve it.  The most successful companies we know have a thought leadership strategy with a small number of topics. Consider McKinsey’s Global Institute, which since its launch in 1990 has gone deep on relatively small number of issues -- not hundreds -- especially the macroeconomic impact of the Internet. (MGI's most recent report, released last month, is this 180-page page-turner on how digitization is changing the global flow of goods, services and money.) McKinsey’s ability to build on prior studies has helped it produce memorable reports on its topics. 

To consistently produce great content that generates substantial interest, B2B companies must determine what issues they need to “own” and resist funding thought leadership initiatives outside that core. On this count, aspiring B2B thought leaders can take a page from the pharmaceutical industry. The R&D focus that Big Pharma companies such as Merck, Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline now say is necessary to produce blockbuster drugs works the same way in thought leadership: Focusing on fewer and more related topics yields deeper ideas that are more likely to be breakthroughs. 

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