Why Buyers Gravitate to Thought Leaders

Many definitions of thought leadership are floating around on the Web. (I'll have an updated version shortly.) And people opining about the characteristics of thought leadership abound as well. (I'm guilty of that too.) These criteria become important when you try to get experts to develop their thinking before you turn it into ink; they need to understand what you’re looking for.

But curiously, there’s been little said about why great content actually has its intended effect – that is, why it generates strong market interest in an expert’s expertise. What is it about a breakthrough Harvard Business Review article, a compelling conference presentation or a riveting book that makes the audience reach out?

To wit, why does thought leadership move people to action?

If one can answer that question, one can gain confidence that the long and difficult process to establish a firm as a thought leader is worth the effort. And perhaps one can get even the biggest internal skeptics to see why thought leadership works when it does – i.e., when there is a proven, breakthrough way of solving a seemingly intractible business problem.

Over the last 27 years, I have talked to numerous people who were initially moved by an article, presentation or book to ultimately buy the services of the firm behind it. I’ve have seen five things that moved them from interest to inquiry.

  1. Thought leadership created order out of chaos. Executives have always been confronted with complex, high-stakes issues to manage: increasingly demanding and ever-bigger customers; new competitors with potent but confusing new strategies and tactics; arcane but important new technologies whose value was hard to crystalize, and adoption challenges that were even harder to decipher; and much more. But as the world  gets increasingly complex (if for no other reasons than globalization and fast-advancing digital technologies), the chaos becomes even more chaotic. Executives with more questions than answers cling to thought leadership that creates order out of chaos. 
  2. Thought leadership replaced boardroom boredom with excitement. People like to buy the hot new thing – smartphones, cars, wearable technologies, cereals, and TV shows. New management concepts are no exception. (Just ask Bain & Co., which has surveyed buyers of consulting services since 1993 about what management concepts were in vogue.) Thought leadership gives managers who crave something different – a new problem to solve, or an old problem to solve through a new way – their fix. Christopher Koch, when he was at ITSMA, referred to this as the “epiphany stage” in the buying process, the moment at which customers realize they have an important need. But we think the epiphany stage also happens when they’re searching hard for solutions to a need they already realize. 
  3. Thought leadership gave hope when times were bleak. Complex, high-stakes issues put companies and careers at risk. Ideas that solve problems can vault companies past competitors and make careers. It is no surprise that some of the hottest new management concepts took root during bad economic times. A concept that is all about generating and keeping revenue – customer relationship management – has been a highly popular executive suite tool since the near-financial meltdown of 2008, according to Bain. (See the firm’s hit chart here.) And business reengineering gained mindshare during the recession of the early 1990s, on its way to creating a nearly $5 billion annual market for such consulting services by 1995, according to Gartner. 
  4. Thought leadership reduced the buyer’s risk. Executives can get fired for choosing a consulting, law, IT services, IT, accounting or other firm that screws up. Heads of functions such as IT that are especially big purchasers of professional services turn over regularly. In fact, between 2006 and 2013, the average chief information officer kept his job less than five years, according to SIM International (see slide 17). Thought leadership reduces the risk of selecting the wrong adviser by giving the buyer a healthy slice of the expert’s advice. A book, of course, is a huge slice. But buyers need to make sure a firm has people beyond the authors who can fulfill their book's implied promise. 
  5. Thought leadership saved buyers time and effort in their search process. Although search engines have dramatically reduced the time it takes to find expertise and other B2B offerings, big companies can still go through long, arduous processes to winnow out the winning firm. The one whose thought leadership stands out can short-circuit a drawn-out procurement process, especially if it successful redefines the problem and how to address it. At that point, buyers believe there’s only one firm capable of solving their problem.

In these five way I’ve seen buyers of professional services and other B2B offerings covet thought leadership. To the marketer and the thought leaders, it’s a magical moment when it happens. 

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