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Being Heard in the Deafening Market of Ideas

Anyone who has long succeeded in using thought leadership marketing to create demand for expertise may be lulled into a dangerous impression: that the quality of what they publish, and how they attract audiences to it, will always be good enough. Always has been; always will be. But the chances that will remain the same grow slimmer every year, and for two reasons.

The first is that the volume of thoughtful content has exploded, with the notion of becoming a “thought leader” now fashionable across industries, not just in professional services firms. Consider the number of articles published annually by the Harvard Business Review. When HBR appeared only as a print publication several decades ago, it published maybe a hundred or so articles a year. Today (from my back-of-the-napkin calculation), with the online edition that number has increased roughly 10 times (figuring an average of five new online posts a day x 250 business days a year), to what I estimate is more than 1,200.

So in vying for senior management attention alone in HBR, you’re competing against 10 times the number of articles in a year that you competed against 20 years ago.

What’s more, all of us who strive for “earned media” are competing more and more against others who are paying to play through native advertising. Paid posts increasingly pop up everywhere online – in Harvard Business Review’s online edition, at the middle of The New York Times’ home page (“From Our Advertisers”) and with Forbes.com’s more than 100 “BrandVoice” native advertisers.

But The New York Times, HBR, Forbes, Huffington Post and their media competitors are no longer the only places where writers can gain big, influential online audiences. LinkedIn (with its Influencer program) has become a thought leadership publishing platform, not just a resume posting and job recruiting site. After launching its Influencer blog platform with 150 invited bloggers (famous folks like Richard Branson and Bill Gates) in the fall of 2012, LinkedIn opened up its site to all bloggers about two years later. By July 2015, 1 million LinkedIn members had written posts, at a rate of more than 130,000 posts a week. Just six months later, the number of bloggers grew to nearly 2 million, at a clip of 150,000 a week.

That means we’re all now competing against something like 7.8 million blog posts a year on LinkedIn. While surely many of those are of marginal quality, some aren’t. This amounts to whole new competition for clients’ minds and budgets.

And let’s not stop with LinkedIn. You may have come across a site called Medium.com, founded by one of the creators of Twitter (Evan Williams) in 2012. Like LinkedIn, it claims millions of bloggers, too, some of whom write on business topics.

We shouldn’t forget that in the world of selling ideas, the published word is not the only medium were competing in. There’s video publishing as well, exemplified by the now-popular phenomenon called TED talks. TED was founded many years ago – 1984 to be exact – by Richard Saul Wurman as a conference covering technology, entertainment and design (and thus the acronym TED). Wurman’s mission: spread important ideas. It took until 2006 before TED started posting its TED talk videos online. By 2012, the number of views of TED talks were 1 billion. Today, TED has more than 2,000 talks online.

So all of us are competing against many more authors and many more topics than we ever did. I think that’s one of the reasons why our research since 2006 on thought leadership in consulting firms (a survey we have done with the Association of Management Consulting Firms since 2010) shows a growing percentage believing their marketing is not as potent as it used to be. In 2006, 40% of the consulting firms we polled said their thought leadership marketing programs were extremely or highly effective. In last year’s survey, only half that number said the same thing.

The explosion of thought leadership content has made it much harder to stand out.

The Marketers’ Tools Have Multiplied

The second reason for any of us not to get complacent about our thought leadership marketing skills is that marketing one’s ideas is infinitely easier today than it was 10 years ago. The thought leader’s marketing tools then were largely email, snail-mail, public speaking and publishing in the right places, and self-publishing (print and online).

The tools of today are much broader, with a set that can be highly potent at spreading a memorable message: social media. With Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and other social sites, it is profoundly easier and less expensive for thought leadership marketers to attract sizable audiences to their firms’ ideas.

But here, too, you have much more competition. You merely have to look at the growth in users of Twitter and LinkedIn – the two most popular social media marketing tools in thought leadership marketing (at least in the consulting industry). Twitter has more than five times as many users today (around 320 million) as it did in 2009. LinkedIn has about 100 million more members than Twitter (with 414 million at the end of 2015), eight times the number it had seven years ago.

And when social media is used well to flog content, good things can happen. For example, LinkedIn said the average “Influencer” blog post in 2014 generated more than 31,000 views and more than 250 likes and 80 comments.

The result of being able to spread ideas in minutes to thousands of people is a cacophony of voices, most of them unmemorable for sure -- yet some very good – that now compete with your ideas for market attention. On any topic, you’re likely competing against dozens or hundreds of smart people who publish online today on the very topics you write about – not a handful.

It’s much harder to be heard amid the deafening crowd. It’s much harder to say something new, and much easier for your competition to get an audience.

How to be Heard in the Deafening Crowd

So what do you do in this cacophony of content? I argue that at least six moves are in order:

  1. Identify the topics on which your firm has truly unique and compelling advice. I have referred to this in the past as deciding what client issues your firm must “own.” That means fewer rather than more issues to own, perhaps even one if you’re a small firm. When you narrow the number of client issues you decide to own, that allows you to focus your content creation initiatives (e.g., 20 articles on different facets of the same client issue – not two). And that, in turn, means you’ll go much deeper than you would if your firm skimmed the surface of 50 or more issues. Go for fewer topics and more content on those topics, and make sure you build on compelling frameworks your firm has used, and you’ll produce deeper and more intelligent points of view.
  2. Raise your content quality standards, and enforce them. Reject articles that don’t offer a new solution, or do say something new but have no real examples to support them. (By the way, naming companies is always far better than disguising them.) Decide, for example, that every article needs at least three supporting case studies or anecdotes, not one. And know what the competition has published on your topic.
  3. Dig deeper for supporting evidence for every article’s prescriptions. Make extensive use of online search engines, LinkedIn groups and other online sites that can lead you to companies and best practices. It’s far easier than it was 10 or 20 years ago to find best practices online. It just takes substantial time.
  4. Read the tea leaves harder. Giving truly differentiated advice in thought leadership content begins with sizing up some problem in the world differently. “The mere formulation of a problem is far more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skills,” Albert Einstein said. “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science.” Once you’ve revised the problem statement, take more time to crystalize the patterns that separate best practice from worst practice in trying to solve that problem. Coming up with novel, supported insights is much harder in a sea of content. But when you do, it still commands an audience.
  5. Work harder to come up with memorable ways to express your insights. Use more metaphors and similes. Spend more time on finding famous quotations that fit. These are all tried-and-true writing devices. Edit/rewrite extensively. Don’t hit “publish” after the first draft.
  6. To spread your firm’s most compelling ideas, use every tool at your disposal: social media, speeches, email newsletters, webinars, seminars, conference speeches article submissions to well-read publications, LinkedIn articles, and even links on your email signature. And continue to conduct research studies (and publish them), as well as books (if you have something very substantial to say).

It’s a much more crowded market for management ideas. Even those with the most substantial ideas, and the greatest marketing resources to spread the word about them, have to continue raising their game.