The Right “Less is More” Argument to Make for Thought Leadership

If I had a dollar for every time I've heard someone say, “No one reads long articles anymore” over the last 26 years, I’d be as rich as Sir Richard Branson. Well, maybe not quite. But you get my drift.

It’s a flawed argument. It’s also the wrong “less is more” argument to make with thought leadership, but more about that in a bit. Lots of books, e-books and long articles continue to be read – i.e., those with superb content. I’ve watched my teenager read and re-read 700+-page Harry Potter books for the last five years. And apparently so have many others since author J.K. Rowling’s first tome appeared in 1997. (Since then, something like 450 million copies of her Potter series have been sold.)

All to say that long-form content is not dead yet. You might be thinking, "Hey, long books may work for children's stories but not for business content." If so, think again. Forbes magazine's chief product officer Lewis DVorkin nicely explains in this article how long-form business journalism is still in vogue, even online.

So how long should thought leadership content be? Here’s my rule of thumb: The best length for an article, research report or book is the fewest number of words possible for making a strong argument. For some arguments, it might be 500 words. For others, it might be 5,000. And still others may require a couple hundred pages of book text. For sure, a poorly written and poorly argued 5,000-word article is far too long. In fact, it is 5,000 words too long; if the core argument is weak, it shouldn’t be posted at all. 

Yet this is not an argument that’s worth much time for people involved in thought leadership marketing to invest in. It’s the wrong “less is more” argument to take with thought leadership. The right one is about how many articles a firm produces in a year. On this count, less is certainly more. And we have numbers and experience to support this.

First the numbers: Earlier this year, we and the Association of Management Consulting Firms surveyed 50 consulting firms about the thought leadership-type content they post on their websites. We wanted to shed light on a simple question: What leads to leads? Simply publishing more articles? With more graphics? Or more videos? Or backed by research? Or penned by ghostwriters instead of consultants themselves? (Here's the survey report.)

We compared the answers of two groups: those whose content produced the greatest number of inquiries from potential clients last year, and those whose content produced the fewest. 

It turns out that volume is not correlated with leads. The consulting firms that generated more than 40 leads per month produced 0.14 articles a year per $1 million in firm revenue. That was less than half the number of articles produced by the laggards (0.33 articles a year per $1 million in firm revenue for firms generating 20 or fewer inquiries per month). Yet the leaders’ articles still generated nearly five times the number of prospect inquiries than the laggards – 2.8 vs. 0.6 inquiries per article.

So less is more when it comes to the volume of thought leadership content. Why? We believe it’s because the firms generating the most leads were putting more time and resources into each piece of content: more primary research, more marketing of each article, and more ghostwriting talent. The numbers from our study with AMCF bear this out:

  • In consulting firms whose articles produce the most leads, 32% of those articles are based on primary research vs. only 9% for the laggards. 
  • Some 53% of the leaders’ articles were ghostwritten vs. 22% of the laggards. That doesn’t necessarily mean that consultants’ expertise wasn’t tapped in leading firms. In our experience, it’s that the ghostwriters were better able to communicate in prose the consultants’ expertise. You still need consultants to sit down with ghostwriters who can codify their thinking, structure it to make a compelling argument, and leave no idea fuzzy.
  • In 100% of the leaders, the marketing function determined the marketing campaigns for each piece of thought leadership content. In 50% of the laggards, the consultants dictated how the content would be marketed. Most marketers we know have a broader range of marketing tools in their marketing mix than the consultants in their companies. Consultants can often do a lot of personal marketing (which is good): emailing their articles, sending out LinkedIn messages, and so on. But they typically don’t have the access to seminar, webinar, publications, advertising and other marketing budgets that marketing has.

Less but more substantive content is definitely more when it comes to the number of thought leadership articles a firm should produce. This is the “less is more” argument you should be making in your firm.

Which "less is more" argument is your firm having? Which side is winning? And do you think that's good or bad?

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