What separates winners from losers in the race among consulting firms to establish thought leadership? The Association of Management Consulting Firms (AMCF), The Bloom Group, and Rattleback explored that question in an April 2015 survey of consulting firm executives and their clients on thought leadership content and marketing. (The survey, now in its 6th year, queried 692 consulting customer executives in eight industries, the majority of whom work in companies with revenue of at least $1 billion, plus 108 consulting firm executives.)
AMCF has just released the full findings in a three part-report: AMCF breaks down the customer opinions and consulting firm buying decision insights; Bloom Group examines the content strategy, development and marketing lessons, and Rattleback explores the website design and management findings.
The report delivers plenty of information you can use to justify, tailor, and improve your thought leadership efforts -- material we will explore in several blogs to come during the next few weeks. We want to start by sharing some of the content and content marketing lessons from the best of the best firms.
As part of the survey, we broke out a group of leaders -- consulting firms getting the most ROI in terms of leads to the company for new business. Several traits and habits stand out among this group. So if you're developing thought leadership content at a consulting firm, take a good look. Does your company follow similar tactics -- or can you learn some new tricks?
Let's set the stage on what the survey said about the state of thought leadership efforts, then delve into the habits of winners.
1. Who says consulting firms need standout thought leadership?
Their customers: A whopping 96% of respondents call thought leadership content a significant factor in choosing a consulting firm. But 94% say poor quality content lessens their opinion of a firm. So if you're prioritizing quantity over quality, you're doing the opposite of what customers desire.
2. What do consulting firms spend on thought leadership?
The typical consulting firm budget for thought leadership marketing has remained pretty steady since AMCF and Bloom Group began tracking it in 2011 -- hovering at about 1% of total revenue. In 2015, firms spent an average of 0.9% of total revenue on thought leadership marketing. (That's a $4.3 million spend on an average revenue of $467 million.) At the high end, about 8% of firms plan to spend more than $10 million this year. Within that group, about 3% will invest more than $50 million in thought leadership marketing in 2015.
3. What are consulting's most effective thought leadership marketing channels?
We asked the consulting execs to rate the best routes for getting the word out there on their firm's thought leadership (best meaning most effective at generating market awareness and leads.) The top five for 2015: SEO, conference presentations, consulting firm seminars, mentions in the press, and bylined articles in external online publications. The focus on SEO shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, if a potential customer searches on an area of focus for your firm, say "data analytics," the firm wants to rank highly in search results. Search is an important way for firms to pull new people into seeing thought leadership content. After all, as one manager commented at a recent AMCF event in San Francisco, few people wake up in the morning and say "I think I'll buzz over to that consulting firm's website to see what's going on." That's also why the bylined articles in third-party online publications matter greatly.
Four Key Habits of Winners at Consulting Firm Thought Leadership
Among the consulting firms in the survey, we separated out a group of leaders -- those whose thought leadership efforts generated the greatest number of leads per size of the firm (per $1 million in revenue). Consider these four behaviors the winners have in common, based on survey data and our client experience:
1. Focusing deeply on a few issues
Leaders don’t aim too broadly with thought leadership content. Instead of picking 16 topics to cover in a shallow way, the firm picks a small number of issues that it wants to own, and goes deep on them. This topic list matches what the firm wants to sell, of course. Maybe one topic for your firm this year is Internet of Things: Firm expertise could include sub-topics such as deployments, application development, security standards, and more.
By contrast, some firms try to address a large number of marketplace issues but end up publishing mediocre or poor content on those many topics. Shallow content won’t get you the desired results. Remember the first graphic on this story showing that 94% of clients say poor quality content turns them off? We call this avoiding "diffused insights."
2. Balancing research and consultant wisdom
Anyone who has worked inside a consulting firm knows it is easier to do a quick online survey than to do systematic interviews with consultants to gain in-the-trenches wisdom learned from engagements. (Client interviews prove even tougher.) But leader firms know the easy way doesn’t pay. Leaders are more likely to balance both consultant field experience and quantitative data as they create thought leadership content.
That's important, since 46% of our survey respondents say consultant wisdom is the best source for thought leadership content, making it the top choice overall (compared to quantitative research, customer interviews, etc.) That's "best" in terms of generating client interest. We call this avoiding "imbalanced insights."
3. Avoiding sound bite insights
Strong thought leadership content takes time to develop and refine. While the temptation to rush to market with sound bites on a particular topic is great, leaders resist it. In our experience, customers want to hear a strong argument and unique insight on the topic, not a quick, cute take. Without question, some people in the firm may pressure content managers to get something quick out there on the hot topic du jour. But content managers at leading firms use their deep content plan (See Habit #1) to keep efforts focused. We call this avoiding “stunted insights.”
Can you just sneak sound bites into social media? Don’t kid yourself. Many potential customers will see such Twitter posts for what they are -- introduction to the obvious. That is the opposite of thought leadership.
4. Spending more online than offline
Leaders will fork over 59% of their 2015 thought leadership budgets for online marketing, whereas followers will allocate only 47% to online marketing. To the laggards we ask, what's holding you back? Content consumption has become an online experience -- and that's not going to change. While the study showed that live conferences and in-person seminars still rate highly for effectiveness, online articles prove more effective than print ones, our respondents said.
But we're not talking just about a consulting firm website with strong content. Survey respondents also revealed they value interactive graphics and personalized content, and efforts like that involve time and money for content managers. (For more on the design and website management results, see Rattleback's analysis in the full report.)
Leaders also invest time and money into social outreach to draw new people to their thought leadership content. But we've noticed a strange disconnect here. Consulting firms understand the power of personal relationships in closing sales, yet much social outreach is still being done from the brand accounts rather than the thought leaders' individual accounts. Looking ahead, firms who "get" this -- that social works best person-to-person -- faster than their rivals will reap greater rewards. Technology companies have figured this out, creating evangelists who become the company's social "faces" on topics like cloud or security. Time to catch up, consulting firms.
Do any of these habits surprise you? Do any run counter to your firm's experience? I'd love to hear from you in the comments field below.
Laurianne McLaughlin is Content Director at The Bloom Group @BloomGroupTL.