The Hidden Value of Thought Leadership

I know lots of people who, with varying degrees of success, are trying to get their boss behind thought leadership marketing and raise their organization’s investment in it. I can assure you the more successful ones get attention by being crystal clear about the “why”: "We should do this to generate leads and revenue." When they see soft benefits thrown at them, CEOs, CFOs and even some CMOs tune them out like they do their mother-in-law.  Want to make their eyes close? Use words such as “enhanced reputation,” “cachet,” “speaking engagements,” or “market buzz.”

So if you hope to get the attention and budget approval of top management, talk about the value of thought leadership in their universal language: money. Dollars and cents. And make sure you have a few real-life examples to back up your monetary claims. (One of our clients, consultancy Quantum Performance, recently revealed to Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper that thought leadership marketing tripled its revenue. Read it here.)

But after you do what the fictional wide receiver Rod Tidwell advised his sports agent to do in the memorable movie "Jerry Maguire" (“Show me the money!"), it helps to point to other concrete, “I-want-them-too” benefits I’ve seen thought leadership generate (at its best).  These can raise your boss's eyebrows even higher. (Note I said “can.” Ultimately, you won’t deliver on these if your content isn’t remarkable and marketing program extensive.) Here they are:

  1. Competition killer. When a firm creates a poignant point of view on an issue, it does so by redefining the problem and offering a novel solution.  By persuading your audience that the traditional ways of solving some business problem are now insufficient, you will have eliminated much of your competitors (sometimes all) from consideration. Real thought leadership reframes a business issue and offers a radically different solution. If it’s radically different, it means you are the only one who can solve it your way (for now, 'til others catch on).
  2. Profit enhancer. If your clients fall in love with your unique approach to solving their problem, you aren’t competing on price anymore. A unique and compelling offering can command a high price. (Just look at what Apple charges for an iPad vs. what Amazon charges for its Kindle or what the competing tablet computer makers charge for theirs.) This works the same way in professional services and other B2B businesses. You think the fees of law firm Wachtell Lipton didn’t go up a tad after it invented the “poison pill” corporate takeover defense in 1982? (By the way, Wachtell Lipton continues to make big bucks on its poison pill legal expertise to this day, helping a firm called Airgas this week fend off a $5.8 billion unsolicited acquisition offer from Air Products. If you care to learn more, go here.) Unique approach = higher prices = greater profits.
  3. Talent magnet.  A truly new and compelling idea about how to solve some business issue not only attracts clients, it seduces people to work for your firm. In the early 1990s, the consulting firm I worked for became a magnet for MBAs from the finest business schools – students who became entranced by “business reengineering” as the hot new consulting service. I'm certain firms like Bain have done similarly through the many big ideas they've brought to market. Thought leadership tells people looking for jobs that your firm could be onto the next big thing.
  4. Sales force morale booster. I can’t imagine any salesperson really loves cold-calling. In fact, I suspect many despise it. When thought leadership works, cold-calling isn’t necessary. Your marketing function generates strong leads for your sales force. (Yes, I have seen this happen.) By the way, customers hate cold-calling as much as your salespeople do. A new client of ours ran his marketing plan by one of his advisers recently (the business unit head of a Fortune 100 company), and his adviser told him he gets numerous unsolicited calls from consulting firms and prefers that they send him educational material that shows how much they know. He's talking about thought leadership. Salespeople win in another way: The time it takes to close a sale can shrink greatly. The Quantum Performance principals told me that.
  5. Product innovator. Thought leadership can be the catalyst to creating a new offering service or product offering. The consulting firm I worked for in the 1990s (Index Group) used its thought leadership to shift its consulting services: from advising CIOs on how to run the IT function to business operations consulting. Bain entered the operations consulting business (branching beyond strategy) through big-deal concepts such as customer loyalty management in the 1990s. And Wachtell Lipton fully entrenched itself in the lucrative corporate takeover defense business some 29 years ago through the poison pill offering. Thought leadership becomes a particularly important tool for product companies that want to generate consulting revenue around the use of their products (e.g., GE Healthcare’s consulting services).
  6. Bad client screening tool.  The way this works is that a stellar thought leadership content development and marketing function generates too many business leads for its organization to handle. It can get choosey about whom it does business with. (I wrote about one aspect of this last summer here.) It can even put a firm in the enviable position of charging clients to diagnose whether they are ready to implement its big idea – and walk away from those that aren’t. That will save both the client and your firm a great deal of aggravation.
  7. Ego enhancer. It’s nice to be adored for one’s brain. In the minds of your target audience, thought leadership raises your IQ 50 points. (I didn't say this; personal computer pioneer Alan Kay once said something to this effect.) People look at thought leaders much differently and treat them with respect. Ask someone who has published in Harvard Business Review, a bestselling book, etc., how it changed the way people treated them.

Now don’t start promising these things to your CEO, practice head or CMO if you aren’t prepared to help your thought leaders create exceptional content. Despite plenty of pundits telling us that “You too can be a thought leader in 5 easy steps,” it just isn’t the case. It’s all BS. (My colleague Tim Parker recently waxed eloquently on this in his blog. Read it here.) 

To be sure, your firm's experts won’t become famous for their ideas overnight. It doesn’t happen simply by putting pen to paper or speaking at a local chamber of commerce event. Becoming a thought leader is hard. It takes passion and intensive work to study an issue, develop a new way to address it, and gain the evidence (real client work or other research) that shows it works.  I haven’t found a short cut yet.

But when you create great content and market it well, the benefits I’ve mentioned above can be had by your firm. I’ve seen it happen, again and again.
 

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