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Resist the Lure of the Thought Leadership Miracle Cure

If your firm is desperate for leads, thought leadership won’t help in the short term. Anyone who hopes thought leadership marketing will deliver a miracle cure for a dry sales pipeline will very likely be disappointed.

We occasionally get inquiries from firms that we sense are desperate to drive business from thought leadership marketing. One of the first things they ask us is, “What is the ROI on thought leadership marketing?” Then they ask how long it will take to go from zero to 100 mph in this business: from a couple of phone calls to a bylined article in a top-tier management publication like Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, Forbes, or Fortune.

And then, how long it will take from that point to generate leads.

Thought leadership marketing is not a miracle cure. It won’t instantly turn a little-known firm into a group of leading experts that gets on customer short lists.

However, when firms start with realistic expectations and then develop compelling content and market it well, thought leadership marketing can become a strong asset that attracts clients -- one that takes competitors considerable time and skill to match.

When a firm’s view shifts from thought leadership marketing as miracle cure to thought leadership marketing as strong lead generator, built over time, the results can be powerful.

If you’re in the “miracle cure” group, you probably wonder why thought leadership marketing takes time to work. First, it requires a highly focused and concerted effort to codify and explain deep expertise on a topic – expertise that you haven’t read somewhere else. Second, it takes stellar writing and pitching skills to get content into the marketplace -- via articles, conference presentations, blog posts, and more -- where it can attract client attention. That means at least several months of work, not days or weeks. Let’s examine the keys to success for both tasks.

 

Great Content Isn’t Developed in a Day or a Week

It takes a lot of effort to produce compelling content. By “compelling,” I mean content that convinces potential customers that a firm has uncanny insights on a problem and superior expertise in solving it.

Nothing replaces deep experience in solving a problem, complemented by primary research that illustrates how organizations have succeeded or failed with various solutions. But even when a firm has deep experience, it takes time to uncover what is often tacit knowledge -- expertise in the experts' heads that has not been codified. This task typically requires multiple conversations with the subject matter experts, probing issues that may surface only when you ask why an approach worked with clients.

Codifying several people’s expertise on an issue requires time for reflection, getting reactions to initial outlines, and synthesizing input on subsequent versions. (Note: We’ve found outlines work better than article drafts for idea development. The outlines help experts develop key assertions and supporting evidence to build an argument, whereas article drafts prove inefficient at this stage.)

 

Great Content Must Be Published and Presented in Multiple Places

Once your firm has created a strong piece of content, the job is not done. It takes time and skill to win publication in channels your audience respects – top-tier management publications like HBR and Sloan Management Review; popular conferences and seminars; and respected media outlets (e.g., Fortune, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Economist, FT, Forbes and Bloomberg BusinessWeek). When outlets like these say yes to publishing your expertise, customers perceive less risk in choosing your firm. You gain authority for your ideas, as opposed to the many people who fail to get published in those places. (HBR.com and Forbes.com editors have told us they accept no more than 10% of the submissions they get.)

And don't confuse getting quoted by the press with getting an article that your firm bylines in the press. Getting mentioned in the press – being referenced or quoted in a journalist’s article – is a good and necessary part of the thought leadership marketing mix. But it's not the most important piece, our research of consulting firms and their buyers has found over the years. (Public speaking is more important, and writing articles under their own names is equally important.) One quote in a Wall Street Journal article won’t do that much for a thought leader. A 40-word quote can’t show the reader the depth of the expert’s expertise that a 1,400-word article by that expert published in HBR.org, Forbes.com or a similar prominent business publication will.

An expert needs to publish articles in several esteemed publications before readers regard the expert’s advice as coveted and respected. Securing public speaking spots at well-regarded conferences can also elevate an expert’s stature.

These multiple articles and appearances help an expert convey the notion that his or her expertise is high demand. That’s comforting to your potential customers who have big, consequential problems to solve. Perhaps the customer needs a consulting firm to develop leadership skills among staff, a law firm to defend against a class-action suit, a digital firm to revamp a website, or an architecture firm to design a new facility.

These are high-priced services engagements, which carry high personal prices for executives who get them wrong -- and career rewards for those who get them right. For this reason, executives don’t select expert advisers easily. One brilliant article, on its own, won’t likely make such a buyer choose your firm quickly. It won’t deliver a miracle success.

 

Commitment and Patience Produce Payoff

The good news: Because great content and stellar content marketing require effort and time, the committed firm gains a competitive advantage. This is especially true now that potential customers often start with a search engine to locate expertise on a topic. If you’ve developed a great deal of compelling content and have published it widely (externally and on your website), more sites will link to your content and it will rise in the search engine rankings.

Not all of your competitors will want to take the time to climb these hills. Some will take the quick route and produce low-quality content, which inevitably falls flat. Give your strategy a bit more time, and you’ll reap real ROI – while the miracle cure crowd watches.