At a June conference on thought leadership marketing in the consulting industry, several people in the audience complained about how hard it is to mention clients in articles, speaking presentations, books and other content. Some clients have corporate policies that prohibit vendor endorsements. Others don’t want to go public with stories that show their weaknesses and need for outside help. And still others don’t disclose anything they don’t see to be in their best interests.
But I deeply felt the audience’s pain. They have very good reason to complain. Research on the buyers of consulting services show it should be a big concern to every consulting firm that wants to generate leads from thought leadership. Four out of five buyers surveyed this year by the Association of Management Consulting Firms said it’s critical for consulting firms to provide real examples in their thought leadership material.
That shouldn’t be surprising when you think about it. If I was about to spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars on a consulting firm’s services, I (like the 703 executives surveyed by AMCF) would want proof that its approach to strategy development, digital marketing, or product development actually worked. Sure, new approaches to solving business problems can be intellectually intriguing. However, few executives are willing to be guinea pigs. Providing real evidence reduces their risk of choosing the wrong adviser.
But if you’re a consulting firm, or any other B2B firm for that matter that wants to differentiate its offering on the basis of having unique expertise, how do you convince your customers to be featured in your content? From addressing this problem for many years, I have found the solution to be this: Instead of asking clients (in effect) for a testimonial, ask them if they want to be featured as a best-practice example. Who wouldn't want to be identified this way?
In other words, ask your customers if they want to be profiled in a way that shows how smart they are -- not how smart your firm is.
There’s a big difference between the two. Put yourself in your clients’ shoes when you ask them to be mentioned in an article by your firm. You say something like, “We would like to include you in an article we’re writing about digital marketing and show how we helped your firm improve its digital marketing.” Almost always that request will, and should, be rejected. You’re asking them for a testimonial embedded in thought leadership. Your firm gets to take all the credit for the success of that digital marketing initiative. Your client comes off as a firm that needed help because it was poor at digital marketing.
There’s nothing in it for your client. If they agreed to be featured that way, they’d be doing you a huge favor. You’d get a big win, and their reputation would suffer. Fair deal? I don’t think so. It’s no surprise that the answer you can expect will be “No thanks.”
Getting to “Yes”
Getting clients to be featured in thought leadership requires a firm to show why it’s in its clients’ best interests, specifically their firms' best interest and their personal interest. Firm PR and personal PR are the big factors in play here. You need to cater to them, and only to them.
If you want to feature clients in your white papers, conference presentations, books and the like, you need to position it as being in their best interests. And then you need to write it in a way that’s in their best interests. That means letting them take all the credit for the success of the initiative. Write their stories as case examples or anecdotes that show how they solved a problem, and don’t mention your firm.
I have used this approach for 25+ years, and Bloom Group has used it in its 18 years of existence. It usually (but not always) results in a client agreeing to be featured in some content. One example: Simon-Kucher & Partners, a global pricing consulting firm, profiled a number of clients in its new book Monetizing Innovation, including Porsche, Swarovsky and LinkedIn. SKP positioned and wrote these as case studies, not testimonials. The result was both buy-in by these companies and great illustrations of SKP's beliefs about how to design, develop and price new offerings.
Here’s another example: PAREXEL International Corp., a $2.3 billion biopharmaceutical services company that conducts clinical research, ran a Q&A interview with a research executive at drug giant Pfizer Inc. (a PAREXEL client). The interview was on new approaches to determining the cost effectiveness of drugs early in the development cycle, an area that the PAREXEL vice president who conducted the interview and the Pfizer executive have worked on together. The Q&A helps show that both firms are at the leading edge of such economic models.
From time to time, a compelling case example can take on a public life of its own. For a consulting firm’s publication that I ran 25 years ago, we profiled a successful initiative led by the then-CFO (Jerry Cooper) of Showtime Networks (the pay TV channel of Viacom). The article generated internal awareness at Viacom and external kudos: a coverage story in a major trade publication, a feature in Forbes magazine, and other press (including this Washington Post mention).
For a Harvard Business Review cover article that we helped Deloitte Consulting develop and place 13 years ago, the lure of appearing in an HBR article brought several of its clients to the table to be featured. More recently, a large IT services client of ours has been successful in getting its clients to be featured in its annual research studies. The reason is that the case studies showcase its clients’ successes. These companies love the coverage.
Of course, your firm will look smart, too, by providing real examples that underscore the viability your approach to solving a particular business problem. That’s the proof every B2B firm needs to show its expertise is more than theory.