From 23 years of helping companies become recognized as experts in their domains, I have found their ability to do so has varied greatly. And it wasn’t because of their gray matter -- the expertise they could bring to bear on their clients’ problems. Most of these firms had people who were highly knowledgeable about their domains.
What was far more variable was something else: their proficiency at content development (codifying existing knowledge or creating new knowledge) and customer development (acquiring customers who needed that knowledge). Some firms were surprisingly unsophisticated at both. Others started in a primordial state but evolved over time.
So after ruminating about the thought leadership capabilities of several dozen professional services and other B2B companies I have worked with (or for) over the years, I think I can neatly place these firms into four categories, ranging from primitive to advanced. Because many improved their ability to develop and market compelling B2B content, I see these categories as stages in the evolutionary development of a company’s thought leadership function.
Thinking about where your company is on the evolutionary scale might help it move to the next stage and thus raise your firm’s game in thought leadership. If your firm is less advanced, perhaps the stages will provide insights on why you’re not getting the value you expected from your though leadership investments.
So here are the stages. I’ll begin with the most primitive one:
Stone Age: Subject Experts Roll Their Own
In professional services and other B2B firms that are stuck in this evolutionary phase, the subject experts whose gray matter is to be brought to market (your consultants, lawyers, accountants, software development project managers, researchers, etc.) develop and market their own content. They don’t see why they need content R&D or marketing professionals to help them. Consultants, lawyers, technologists and so on write their own white papers, email them through their personal email lists, and arrange their own speaking engagements.
I can spot these firms just by reading the content on their websites. They slather their white papers with jargon and acronyms that obfuscate rather than edify. Their writings are short of real examples that illustrate and fortify their prescriptions. And the writing is often tortured, with the key point buried or unarticulated.
Perhaps the biggest problem with B2B companies whose thought leadership practices are stuck in the Stone Age is that they are very late to market with new insights. Since their professionals aren’t professional writers, they can’t write quickly. A draft of a white paper that might take a talented ghostwriter two days will take the subject expert weeks or months to pen. The delays are even greater when several subject experts are “collaborating” on a point of view, can’t agree on exactly what it is, and use draft after draft after draft to try to get each other literally on the same page.
Furthermore, when subject experts roll their own, the insights they package can be underwhelming, incoherent and unreadable. The ironic thing is they usually don’t lack unique expertise in their domains or impressive client work. What they do lack is an ability to develop nascent ideas sufficiently for publication and communicate them in a way for the unenlightened to understand. Competitors beat them to the punch with compelling content.
Medieval: Subject Experts Let Marketers Tinker on the Margins
In these firms, subject experts realize their limitations as communicators and let marketers capture their ideas. But the ideas aren’t robust to begin with. They are typically based just on a small sample of client work (and perhaps supplemented with secondary research). The subject experts are not open to learning how companies that aren't clients have tackled the business problems they advise on. Thus their ideas are often grounded on a small research base. (Some B2B firms like strategy consultancy Marakon Associates have created content based on a much larger base of client work, which makes for a far deeper well of experience. But I have found these firms to be in a distinct minority.)
Subject experts allow marketers to package their ideas but not to help them develop their thinking -- e.g., find examples to support arguable points and identify missing pieces of logic in a complex argument. This leads to substandard content because few ideas that SMEs throw over the wall to marketing are ever developed enough to be seminal or even very different. Marketing is left to “put lipstick on the pig,” as they say.
Perhaps knowing that the content isn’t remarkable, marketers don’t commit large parts of their budgets to any one piece of content. They’ll do a one-off white paper mailing, a blog post or two, and maybe a webinar. But sending an article proposal to a prestigious management journal? Nope. And publishing a book? Out of the question.
The result: content communicated clearly but that doesn't inspire. And the absence of concentrated marketing behind any one piece of content means it doesn’t spread very far. I’ve seen several firms manage thought leadership this way, including one consulting firm that actually has deep pockets of expertise in several areas. But firm partners remain skeptical about the value of thought leadership because they don’t see their programs making the phone ring or clogging their email inboxes with leads.
Industrial Age: Good at Regularly Creating Buzz but Generating Little Beef
B2B firms here unquestionably value thought leadership. But they prefer to capture the expertise that’s already in their heads rather than cast a wider net of “best practices,” even if they base their knowledge on a small number of client experiences. They often supplement their expertise with primary survey research to bring numbers to things they already would like to say about how to solve some business problem. (Example: “60% of the firms we polled say they don’t have a social media strategy.” OK, but what firms do have effective social media strategies, and what do they have in common? You won't get deep insights on that from a multiple-choice survey.) Such survey research skims the surface of the issues on which they create content. When you view their studies, papers and conference presentations, you are stimulated but not wowed.
The good news is that these firms are proficient at marketing content – at creating campaigns that draw on multiple tools in the thought leadership marketing mix: blogs, social media discussion groups, white papers, opinion articles in respected trade publications, email mailings of survey reports, webinars, conference speeches and more. Companies like IBM throw huge advertising dollars at attracting readers to their studies, and they get a lot of clicks.
So even if their ideas aren’t breakthrough, they get a lot of air time. But since they lack seminal ideas illustrated with compelling stories of companies achieving great things, their ideas are forgettable.
Post-Industrial Age: Masters of Generating Big Ideas and Attracting Big Audiences
Companies that have evolved to this stage – and there are very few of them (McKinsey’s Global Institute and occasionally Bain & Company come to mind) – conduct deep primary, best practice-based research. On any subject, they talk to dozens of companies to understand why some are solving a business problem far better than others. (These firms often have people whose sole job is to conduct such research.) They rigorously analyze what they’ve heard and don’t let their past client work bound their thinking.
Then they allow their marketers to help them develop their thinking even more. Furthermore, they let their marketers decide how to communicate their ideas (of course, with the usual debates on how to phrase things). And their marketers, emboldened with having breakthrough, substantive ideas to market, go to town with them. They wheel out the full marketing plan.
The result: Best-selling books, memorable Harvard Business Review articles, seminars backed with buyers, and bloggers and tweeters and LinkedIn groups singing their praises. These firms are overwhelmed with bona fide leads and new client work.
I think I can place every company I know that wants to become a thought leader in one of these four categories. (By the way, I believe social media is ushering in a fifth era that will radically change the way companies develop thought-leading content and gain an audience for it. But I’ll talk about that in a future blog.)
So say you want to evolve from the Stone Age, Medieval or Industrial eras to the Post-Industrial Age. What do you do? Here’s the first thing you shouldn’t do: ask for a bigger thought leadership budget. Your subject experts are still not likely to engage the right way in content development and marketing without changing their attitudes about people who can help them develop and market their ideas.
The first step is getting your experts to be open to the idea that they may need help in developing their thinking, and for certain, in communicating and marketing it. If you can do that, your company will be far better positioned to become a thought leader.