What Is and Isn’t Changing About Thought Leadership

Last month, I resisted the temptation to write the traditional year-end column that looks back on the year and predicts what’s ahead in the new one. On the topic of thought leadership, I’m more interested in taking measure of a longer period of time – the foreseeable future. In my next three posts, I’ll explore what I see changing in this long-practiced yet still primordial profession. More important, I’ll discuss what I think won’t ever change. 

Why do I sound so resolute on this? It’s because the qualities of information that convince people to follow a prescribed course of action are timeless. This is important to remember; it’s quite easy for those of us in marketing to believe technology is rendering the laws of persuasion obsolete. What makes for a persuasive argument will never change. But online technology has changed how to build, communicate and engage an audience in an argument – and it will change that even more in the years ahead.

I’ll also look at what has changed in the last 20 years. If you’ve entered the field recently, you might not realize how much has changed. (My time in this field is longer than that -- well, 27 years if you want to know exactly.) 

So here we go. This post will address what has changed. The next post will explore what will change, and the one after that what won’t ever change. In each case, I’ll look at content (the argument one wants to make), getting content to the right audience (i.e., marketing), and interacting with the audience around some piece of content (call this “engagement”). 

What Has Changed

Content: More Experts, More Competition, Less Print, More Interactive
The need for exceptional content has grown significantly, largely for two reasons: the increasing number of people with expertise on most any issue, and how easy it is to find them. Consider, for example, the explosion in two key sources of business advice: management consulting firms and MBA graduates. The number of management consulting firms in the U.S. nearly doubled to 117,000 between 1998 and 2007 (the latest year for which U.S. Census Bureau data is available). The number of people who graduated with masters and doctorate degrees in business and management has more than tripled since 1990, from about 52,000 graduates in 1990-1991 to about 170,000 in 2008-2009, according to data from the Association to Advance Collegiate Business Schools.

Having many more people who are at least book smart about business, as well as firms that sell this knowledge, adds up to a much bigger pool of business expertise.  It boggles my mind to think that a pure consulting firm can be as large as $7 billion in revenue (McKinsey, according to this recent New York Times article) without a nickel of information systems revenue to boost it. Twenty years ago, a billion-dollar consulting firm was big time.

Back in the early 1990s, clients looking for expertise had two primary sources: colleagues and the company library. At that time, the first web search engines were waiting for the web to be invented. The web finally emerged in August 1991, thanks to Tim Berners-Lee. Google wouldn’t debut until six years later. And even up to about the year 2000 (when law, consulting, accounting, IT services and other professional firms realized they needed web pages), it was hard to find such experts on the web. That meant that long-established firms with a brand (in consulting, AT Kearney, McKinsey, Booz, Boston Consulting Group, etc.) could compete on client ignorance of the alternatives.

Of course, finding dozens of experts in many business domains today just requires typing into a search engine. Those with good, relevant, often-accessed content (what Google is said to use to decide what rises to the top of search) can be found. Articles don’t have to be written by $7 billion consulting firms like McKinsey to finish high in the search rankings. They just have to be very good. Thought leadership posted on the web has become a great equalizer for small professional services firms hoping to be discovered.

The net of it is this: Your content must be much better than it was 10 years ago (even five years ago) because the odds are that you have many more competitors with web content on your topics, and because it's so much easier for prospects to find that content. Consulting firms that we and the Association of Management Consulting Firms (AMCF) have polled the last four years have said the bar of content quality keeps rising. In last year’s survey, 63% of consulting firms believed their competitors’ thought leadership content had gotten better in the last five years, and 72% said it would continue to rise in the next five.  

Thought leadership content is more frequently in online format only. Print appears to be fading. And online content is not only more prevalent, it is also more interactive – that is, viewers can do more than read it. Still, only one-third of consulting firms last year permitted viewers to post comments about articles on their websites. But more consultancies are posting interactive graphics (the average firm posted 3.3 of them last year, more than double the number in 2012). And their content is more frequently in video form. That is making their experts more personable and less detached – more than mere letters in a byline and a bio. 

 

Marketing: There are No Nuclear Weapons Anymore

More than 20 years ago , whole professional services practices or even firms could be built upon a groundbreaking book or management journal article. Published in Harvard Business Review, management concepts such as the balanced scorecard (Kaplan and Norton), the four stages of data processing growth (Richard Nolan and Cyrus Gibson, which led to the consulting firm Nolan Norton & Co.), customer loyalty management (Fred Reichheld of Bain & Co.), and business reengineering made their authors and the firms they were tied to into the consulting equivalent of rock stars. Books like Built to Last (Jim Collins and Jerry Porras) and In Search of Excellence (Tom Peters and Robert Waterman) rocketed their careers. 

Classic HBR articles and bestselling business books were the nuclear weapons of thought leadership marketing – vessels of published wisdom that had explosive impact on the companies that peddled the concepts and their clients. The proliferation of marketing channels since then – online articles, self-published blogs, e-books, tablet publications, webinars, video seminars, social media, and more – has splintered the viewing time and attention of business audiences. Rarely do I hear anymore of a single HBR article or bestselling book having an explosive effect for its authors. 

The news for B2B firms is not to put all their marketing bets on one marketing vehicle. There don’t seem to be any nuclear bombs anymore. You need multiple marketing activities, done in the right sequence to build interest in your services.

One sure-bet marketing activity is to publish strong content online on your own website. Without that, you won’t appear high in search results. With the rise of Google, Bing and other search engines (yes, there are others), getting on the first 1-2 pages of search results is crucial for thought leadership marketers. Lots of leads today come from clients using search engines. That forces B2B firms to publish online – in with high quality content (or they’re not likely to be content people link to, which in turn means Google won’t likely believe it should be ranked high in search). The days of keeping a firm’s expertise in the heads of its professionals are over; those firms will be passed over by Google.

But publishing articles on your website is not nearly enough, unless perhaps you have an online journal with the readership and respect of McKinsey Quarterly. Getting articles bylined by your firm’s experts in credible business publications owned by companies in the publishing business remains important. (In our annual study with AMCF, consulting marketers rated it the third most effective thought leadership marketing channel, after public speaking and running one’s own seminars. See this article.) 

So while getting published in third-party publications has always been important, what’s different today is that appearing in highly respected business publicationshas has become much easier – that is, in their online editions. The days when the doors of business publications and trade journals were only open to staff writers save for the letters to the editor page are gone. Publications that never encouraged outsiders to send columns – e.g., Bloomberg Business Week, Forbes, Fortune, Wall Street Journal – now actively seek and run them in their online editions. The result: HBR, MIT Sloan Management Review and California Management Review aren’t the only reputable outlets for management thinkers to publish. There are many more alternatives. And these publications are anxious for good content. 

 

Engaging with the Audience: Conferences Remain the Best Place to Schmooze with Prospects 

The dream (at least mine) of penning an article, posting it on a website, doing a small amount of email and social media marketing to drive traffic, and then answering phone calls from prospects who have read the article remains the exception rather than the rule. Our annual survey with AMCF shows that (at least for consulting firms) you need to present your material at a conference – yours or a third party's – to hope to generate a great deal of business. Since 2010, consulting firms have said marketing events are the most effective ways to generate leads and revenue from thought leadership (except for 2011, when consulting firms’ seminars finished third, behind getting bylined articles in external print publications). (You can find those stats here.)

But what appears to be changing is the effectiveness of online gatherings between thought leaders and prospects – specifically, webinars. They jumped from the 13th to the 5th most effective thought leadership channel this year. More and more webinars feature live video streams of the presenters and audience members. If that becomes more prevalent, I expect more webinars to be places that drive interest in thought leaders’ expertise.

Those are among the biggest changes I’ve seen in thought leadership over 27 years of being in the field. My next post will look at what will change in the next few years.

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