Your company may have deep expertise, but that alone won’t make the phone ring or the email arrive. If you're already generating regular market interest – clients citing you, prospects calling you, reporters quoting you – let me offer you a hearty congratulations. You’re among a very small minority of firms whose opinions are regularly sought. You're actually getting people to listen.
But if not, your firm may be suffering from five afflictions of companies that struggle to compete on thought leadership. I think of them as insight infirmities – weaknesses in the way companies develop and market business problem-solving content. The infirmities aren’t weaknesses in the ideas themselves. (One of our most popular articles, “The Seven Hallmarks of Thought Leadership,” covers that.)
Rather, the infirmities are shortcomings in the ways companies develop and market their ideas. Each of these weaknesses erodes a firm’s ability to create compelling ideas and command a large audience willing to listen:
- Diffused insights
- Imbalanced insights
- Stunted insights
- Sound bite insights
- Offline-oriented insights
I discussed these weaknesses in a presentation at an Association of Management Consulting Firms seminar in New York this week to about 40 professionals in consulting firms, large and small. The whole day was devoted to the topic of thought leadership marketing. The points resonated deeply for some in the audience. My presentation was based on a survey that we and AMCF conducted in April with 108 managing directors, marketers and others from consulting and IT service firms. (The study report will follow in a few weeks.)
Let's dig deeper into the five insight infirmities. For nearly 30 years, I’ve seen them plague consulting, IT services, accounting and other professional services firms that try to become recognized as thought leaders in their domains.
Diffused Insights: Too Many Ideas, Too Little Time to Develop
This problem afflicts companies that try to develop and market thoughtful content on too many issues – especially unrelated ones. The amount of resources they can spend creating and marketing compelling content on any one issue is small. So they wind up producing superficial, badly researched, and me-too points of view. Then each point of view gets insufficient marketing – a one-off white paper or a conference presentation or a webinar, but not all three. Not an integrated marketing campaign.
How do diffused insights happen? When a company doesn’t narrow down just a few topics that it wants to own for a period of time. Spreading thought leadership marketing dollars over too many topics starves each content initiative.
Avoid this problem by getting your firm’s leaders to choose fewer topics on which to create and market thought leadership content for the year, and then go deeper on each one:
- More extensive research and other content development initiatives on related topics, which enable you to reuse frameworks and other IP that you’ve created. That lets you build on the best ideas you’ve created in prior content.
- More extensive marketing on each topic. That allows you to invest in a series of activities to bring a point of view to market: e.g., the self-published article first, the spinoff article for an esteemed management journal second, the webinar third, the seminar fourth, the industry conference presentation fifth, and so on.
Deeper, more rigorous content on fewer topics marketed more extensively will always beat superficial content that’s marketed “one-and-done.”
Imbalanced Insights: Beware Ivory Towers and Old Playbooks
This weakness occurs when a company relies on research to produce its content, rather than on tapping the expertise of its internal experts -- consultants, lawyers, accountants, or technologists, for example. It also happens when the opposite occurs – a firm relies on the brains of its internal experts and does no primary research.
If you rely too much on primary research, there’s a high chance that people in your business who deliver its services will ignore the content you take to market. “It’s ivory tower thinking,” I’ve heard many a consultant say about a study the marketing department outsourced lock, stock and barrel to a third party.
Conversely, your company doesn’t want to rely too little on research and too much on codifying delivery expertise. The risk: The thought leadership content may be based on an old playbook – approaches a firm has developed over the years to deal with a strategic, operational, HR, IT, legal, accounting or other issue, but which may need wholesale renewal.
Use primary research that compares best and worst practices with clients and other companies (especially the latter) to renew dated approaches. To get your firm’s professionals to buy into such research-driven new approaches, involve them in the research: in designing the studies, conducting some of the best/worst practice case study interviews, and (always) in analyzing the data's meaning.
When you have such well-balanced insights, you bring to market whole new ideas that your professionals have developed. They no longer stay on the sidelines in the marketing and business development of that content – they work hand-in-hand with the marketing group to make it happen.
Stunted Insights: Not Ready for Prime Time
Children can be stunted in their growth. Studies have found poor nutrition and disease to be the biggest factors. The development of content for thought leadership campaigns can be stunted as well. In these cases, we’ve seen the biggest factors to be:
- Lack of internal agreement about what constitutes compelling content (see our “Seven Hallmarks” article again)
- Not enough time to meet those criteria – e.g., to gather case study evidence that proves the prescriptions actually work
- A shortage of talented idea developers working with the firm’s experts to push their thinking before it’s captured in an article or presentation
The third factor is the one that typically separates strong from weak content. Ghostwriters can help a consultant or lawyer communicate his ideas more clearly and in a more interesting way. But if they can’t work productively with the expert to strengthen the rigor of his idea, fill in logic gaps, and assemble evidence that the idea has worked in action, then the article will be readable but not persuasive.
Idea developers are a different breed than ghostwriters. You need the former, not the latter, although some ghostwriters can grow to become idea developers.
Sound Bite Insights: Just Empty Calories
Trained for years to come up with short, compelling marketing messages for advertising, PR campaigns, and the like – that is, great sound bites – some marketers take the same approach to thought leadership content. For sure, being able to say something short and memorable is crucial in thought leadership. But that only happens after an excruciating amount of time, research and thinking is done about a chosen issue and how the best companies have solved it.
Placing the focus on coming up with sound bites doesn’t work in thought leadership marketing. If articles, conference presentations and other thought leadership content are treated as writing – not idea development – exercises, the content is likely to be stunted. This happens when the thought leadership marketing budget focuses on communicating ideas and not on developing them.
We see this form of imbalance in companies that do little thought leadership research. We also see it in the small number of idea developers on the marketing staffs of many firms. We’ve seen firms with 20, 30 or more marketers with only one or two idea developers (or even ghostwriters). (Of course, not everyone has idea development expertise in house, as is the case for many of our clients.)
When thought leadership marketing emphasizes idea development, and when a firm’s experts are working productively with marketing to develop content, great things happen.
Offline-Oriented Insights: Today's Marketing World is Online
Most of us who have been in marketing for decades have a hard time escaping our offline mindset. Before the time when presentations were delivered by webinars, articles were published online, and word of mouth echoed through social media, marketers’ instincts were shaped by the media available:
- Print publications were monologues: readers couldn’t quickly talk back to the authors unless they picked up a phone. Today, online articles enable continuous dialogues between authors and readers. In fact, “readers” is a limiting term; many are now active participants in discussions sparked by articles. Just read the viewer comments in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Harvard Business Review’s online editions.
- Conference marketing ended when the conference ended. Today, in an online world, many professional services firms continue conference dialogue in LinkedIn and other online communities. Knowledge Architecture, a firm that I’ve pointed to in the past, is a master of this practice.
- Marketers were responsible for marketing thought leaders’ ideas. That thinking created many over-worked marketing departments in the B2B world. Today progressive marketers make their firm’s thought leaders part of the marketing team by training them how to use Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media. If you hoard social marketing, you'll be outgunned by firms like McKinsey, TCS and others that have enlisted their thought leaders to spread their ideas into the marketplace.
Architects of thought leadership marketing campaigns need an online marketing mindset, one that stresses ongoing dialogue and taps into the social reach of thought leaders.
Beat Your Weaknesses
Ultimately, thought leadership marketing lives or dies not only on the strength of the insights that a firm brings to market, but also how well that firm gets people to listen and sparks market discussion.
Your firm can avoid these five insight infirmities through diligent, adept thought leadership strategies, effective content development efforts, and inclusive marketing. Then watch your much-better-developed and marketed ideas run circles around those of your competitors.