10 Ways to Power up Your Thought Leadership Marketing

By Tim Parker

A lot has happened in the world of thought leadership marketing this year. In particular, the increasing use of search and social media by the executive suite continues to raise the bar for the quality and quantity of material a B2B firm must produce. It is also changing the channels by which it can best distribute it.

Top TenThis article summarizes the top ten things we think a firm should start doing next year if it isn't doing them already. Being in the business of thought leadership marketing, we know that executives abhor unsubstantiated asssertions. So each of these recommendations is underpinned with data and/or examples, and many have links to further articles. This way, you can follow the logic, disagree if you think we’ve got it wrong, and delve deeper if you want to. Also, if you like, you can use the list below to take shortcuts to the ones you are interested in.

OK, here we go.

  1. Create a content strategy
  2. Go deep and move the market
  3. Build a content development machine
  4. Deliver your content to where it's valued
  5. Deliver where possible to markets of one
  6. Showcase your experts
  7. Formalize your social media strategy
  8. Turn your journals into online ecosystems
  9. Make the substantive visually exciting
  10. Ask your customers

1. Create a content strategy: Decide which few topics your firm will “own” over a 2- to 5-year horizon, which others are not as important, but that you will still occasionally publish on, and which you should ignore.

Over the course of 2010 we have heard more and more firms crying out that they can’t publish good enough material in sufficient quantity to differentiate themselves in the market. It was the number one issue for marketers at a meeting of the Association of Management Consulting Firms in NYC in October; a recent survey of consulting firms in the UK[1] showed that “finding something distinctive to say” is the top issue for all of the largest firms; and another recent study[2] found that “for businesses with existing content marketing strategies, the largest challenge is producing the kind of content that engages prospects and customers.”

This is not just because it’s difficult to be leading edge on every topic a firm has expertise in; it’s also because the bar is continually going up. Eighty percent of C-level executives now perform at least three web searches per day.[3] As more and more suppliers publish their insights online to capture those searches, it gets ever harder to seize executives’ attention. What they are looking for are new (and useful) insights on issues that matter to them – the more profound, relevant and far-reaching the insight, the more attention it gets. Since no one can afford to be leading edge on everything, you have to pick your battles. And that first means identifying the few topics you want your firm to own and on which you will deliver breakthrough insights.

An example: Over the last 10 years the management consultancy Bain & Company has consistently published articles in the retail space, not on a wide range of topics, primarily on localization, customer-led growth and Net Promoter® scores. Over that period the firm has taken a leading position in the sector with over 1,200 client projects[4] to date.

There are several factors that come into play when deciding which topics to own. One is usually a company’s level of expertise on a topic, and another is often the perceived ‘white space’ in the market. The diagram below shows how these might influence decisions about which topics to go long on. One on which the firm already has deep expertise is a candidate to own, especially if the market is crying out for help. Topics on which the firm does not have market-leading expertise, but on which it nonetheless competes, might be candidates for publishing occasional insights gleaned primarily from client work (comment, in the diagram below). And topics for which the firm’s expertise is on a par with competitors and for which there are few unanswered questions might be good ones for marketing to ignore.


Topic Matrix

A matrix to help determine on which topics a firm should develop deep insights


Focusing on a few topics that they want to own isn’t an easy step for most firms to take because it involves deciding what they won’t do. But strategy is always about deciding what not to do as well as what to do; there is a post here by David Maister, a guru of professional services management, on the point. Marketing shouldn’t be exempt from the tough choices other parts of the business have to make.

2.  Go deep and move the market: For the few topics you want to own, plan and conduct original research that will create substantial new insights. 

Executives embrace new ideas that are proven to work. There has been a long procession of them since at least the invention of the moving assembly line in 1910. And almost all of the good ones have been developed and proven by practitioners — sometimes with the help of in-house research departments. The consultants and gurus who have later packaged and communicated them have typically been discoverers rather than inventors.

A recent example: In 2005, Tom Davenport — who was Director of Research at Babson College at the time — secured funding from SAS Institute Inc. and Intel Corp. to study how companies were using business intelligence (BI) software. Tom and his team interviewed 2-4 managers in each of 32 companies that were using BI software and identified traits common to those which were doing it well. Then they wrote a research report which was the basis of an article written by Tom and published by Harvard Business Review in 2006. Today, business analytics is one of the fastest-growing services in consulting and IT and Tom is much in demand as a speaker. Gartner estimates the market to have been worth about $9 billion in 2009, and still growing.

Contrary to the impression you might get from the blogosphere, you don’t become a thought leader by thinking yourself into the zone. To create new insights requires work. If your professionals are truly doing leading-edge engagements with clients, or your labs are doing pioneering research in the course of product development, you may have good material in-house already. But to create an insight that will move the market you will likely have to supplement that with additional primary research.

Some firms shy away from primary research because they think it’s risky – “What if we don’t find anything new?” But in fact a systematic approach to thought leadership research — well executed —always uncovers new insights. And they can inform product and service delivery, consolidating competitive advantage for the firm that produces them.


A process for intellectual capital development


The diagram illustrates a proven approach. 

3. Build a content development machine: Establish a process that will continually deliver a stream of new insights on relevant topics.


Since standards are continually rising for both the quality and quantity of content, you can’t meet them without an effective process for developing that content. Actually you need at least two processes: one for developing content on the topics you want to own (where you are hunting for breakthrough insights) and one for developing content for on the topics that you want to occasionally publish on, but where you don’t expect to be at the cutting edge.

Approaches toThought Leadership Development

 (Source: Bloom Group Research, 127 consulting firms)

The right approach or approaches to use for creating breakthrough insights will depend on your firm, especially its size and culture. For instance, you might set up your own research institute (as Deloitte has at Deloitte Research), establish a research consortium or online community with clients (as Palladium has), or partner with other organizations such as academia or research firms.

Using one of these approaches to do deep case study research can produce novel insights on how the best companies are solving a problem at hand. Done well, this will produce a point of view that can support 10 to 20 articles, white papers, conference presentations, webinars and so on — for each topic. It generally costs less and takes less time than developing the same number of pieces on different topics, and since they all derive from the same overarching point of view, the messages reinforce each other and have more impact in the market. A research report by Unisys called “Rebooting IT Support” on providing effective technology support, was the basis for nine Unisys-bylined, self-published white papers, two conference presentations, and five Unisys-bylined opinion articles in the business press: two in CIO.com here and here, one in Computerworld.com, one in Industry Week, and one in Sloan Management Review. The campaign it underpinned led to a large volume of new sales.

To produce a steady stream of other insights, a B2B firm needs a process that captures and augments in-house expertise. There are two basic options – marketing-led and professional-led content development.

In marketing-led development, marketing probes the organization to find the nuggets of good ideas that can be turned into thought leadership material. As Art Kleiner, editor in chief of Booz and Company’s strategy+business magazine, says: “We’re encouraged to help the client-facing staff crystallize their practice into thought.”[5]

At other firms, especially those where professionals are recognized for their contribution to intellectual capital development, a professional-led approach may work better. In this case, professionals typically approach marketing with ideas they want to publish, and marketing (or an editorial board) supports them in developing and articulating the point of view.

One important thing to bear in mind: The task of writing is 10% of the job. Thought leadership content development is not a publishing process as others have called it. It is an idea development process with writing at the tail end of it.

4. Deliver your content to where it's valued: Target your content as specifically as you can to recipients by role, function, geography and/or personal preference.

The most effective email marketing strategy is to deliver content that is relevant to a particular segment[6] (see chart). Of course this makes sense. Most executives are besieged by content in their inbox from dawn ‘til dusk and anything that isn’t, or doesn’t appear, to be relevant to them will get short shrift.


Tactics that increase the payoff from email marketing


If you are a small firm with a single specialization, then just about anything you produce can go to everyone who has signed up for your newsletter. But if you are a larger firm, you’ll need a more sophisticated approach to make sure the right stuff gets to the right people. You can segment of course by demographics, but you can also (and many firms do, of course) give people the option to self-select the topics they are interested in. This markedly improves the chances of your material being read.

5. Deliver where possible to markets of one: Every time you publish something, have your professionals personally send or deliver it to all of their contacts they know might have an interest.

A survey that we conducted in 2007 of professional services firms showed that those firms where sales and marketing are aligned perform better than those where they are not. We found that when they are working in concert, marketing and sales activities create many more viable leads, that a much higher percentage of those leads turn into work, and much faster.

Integrated Sales and Marketing Processes


In firms that are more successful at creating market awareness, getting meetings with prospects, and winning proposals, marketers and business developers are much more likely to consistently promote the same services.

One way the coordination breaks down in many organizations is that the delivery of marketing materials is a separate process from client management. If however, the client manager is the person who delivers the collateral, he or she won’t be blindsided if the client asks to talk with someone about it. Plus, by personally delivering them, the client manager ensures they cut through the clutter and get read — with more certainty than the catchiest of headlines.

6. Showcase your experts: Make sure that your content is clearly bylined by two or more of your experts and give people a way to enter a conversation with them.

B2B firms have to do much more than business periodicals to showcase the authors of their articles and establish their authority. B2B firms don’t publish to sell copies of a journal; they do it to enhance the reputation of the firm and to encourage people to contact them for advice. Therefore, the first objective is to attract and engage prospects, and the next is to provide them with additional expertise on the topic at hand once they are engaged.

That could be to a website with additional material on the topic, and/or it could be to more information on the expert or experts who are bylined on the article. At some point, if a prospect wants to talk with you, he will want to talk with a qualified professional; no one believes that he can call the switchboard and have a meaningful conversation with whomever answers the phone. Therefore don’t be shy about showing off authors’ credentials, contact details and links to their blogs and bios.

Many firms shrink from promoting their professionals on the basis that if those people later leave the firm the investment will have been squandered. The answer to this is not to hide them under a bushel, but (as well as doing all the proper things to retain them) make sure you elevate more than one professional or practitioner as an expert on every topic. When Paul Dunay was director of marketing at BearingPoint, he described his job as being to “… create the rock stars. And then the rock star would create the rock band – other people in the firm who could also be positioned as experts on the topic.”[7]

A great example of professionals flaunted well is the website of the law firm WilmerHale. Pick any one of the Legal Insights articles from the front page (say this one) and then click on any of the authors’ names. This is a firm that’s proud to show off the experience and expertise of its practitioners. A reader can immediately judge whether an author is someone he would like to speak with and is provided with phone, mail and email contact details. Despite the tough economic conditions that made 2009 a bleak year for most law firms, WilmerHale grew slightly and posted a 7% increase in per-partner profit.

7. Formalize your social media strategy

Institutionalize the handful of social media marketing activities that matter. If you have surplus capacity, continue experimenting with a couple more.

There is enough data available now to show that some social media channels are definitively effective for B2B. For some others the jury is still out. But those that are proven are, in roughly descending order of importance:

Blogs: The proportion of B2B marketers using blogs has doubled to 56% in the last two years, but even so, only 40% of marketers believe it’s an effective channel.[8] Data from HubSpot[9] shows their skepticism is unwarranted. Companies which blog have five times as many pages indexed by search engines, twice as many inbound links, and 50% more visitors. HubSpot’s data also shows that companies which blog several times a day have all acquired customers through that channel. Ninety percent of companies which blog daily have too, but the proportion declines to only 13% of companies which blog less than once per month. Therefore, you must have some of your professionals and practitioners blogging. Help them if they need it, but make sure (as in 6 above) they are positioned as author and expert.

E-Newsletters: The replacement of email by social media has been oft predicted by trend spotters – most recently by Gartner here. But for the foreseeable future, e-newsletters are a crucial part of the B2B marketer’s toolbox. A 2009 survey by Forbes found that email and e-newsletters are the second most effective conversion tactic for marketers – after search engine optimization.


Email and e-newsletters is the second most effective conversion tactic

Another study[10] this year found that over 80% of marketers believe that social media extends the reach of email content to new markets, increasing brand reputation and awareness. In other words, social media are making email more important for content marketers, not less.

Social media extend the reach of email content

In case you were wondering, that’s why we put e-newsletters under social media.

LinkedIn: Some 43% of employees at the largest companies in the US are using LinkedIn for professional reasons, far outweighing other social networks[11]. Fifty percent of LinkedIn's users are decision makers in their company[12] and 41% of people using LinkedIn for marketing have generated business with it[13]. So obviously, LinkedIn is a good place for your professionals and practitioners to engage in discussions and to post excerpts which lead to your content.

LinkedIn is the runaway favorite social network for professionals

Twitter: Twitter is perhaps generally less important than LinkedIn for B2B (as opposed to B2C brands, for instance, where monitoring is now a necessity), but there are three important things that Twitter can help you do: Monitor what’s going on in your field of interest (use TweetDeck or similar to capture tweets with particular keywords), find people who need what you are selling, and point to content you’ve published. (Note that to be effective at pointing to your own material, you must have been fairly prolific in pointing to other people’s quality material first. This is to establish a following that trusts your recommendations, and that will be inclined to retweet your tweets.)

Facebook: The top 50 brands on Facebook (measured by number of fans) are B2C, every single one of them. Facebook might be the third-largest country in the world after India and China, but it’s not primarily a place for B2B. However, there are some opportunities: you can use it to find and reach specific individuals; you can tap the community for ideas; and you use it for recruiting, for instance.

The Rest: YouTube, Flickr and Slideshare can occasionally be useful, but as tools, not generally as strategic channels. And we don’t see much business relevance for FourSquare, MySpace, MocoSpace, Chatroulette or any of the hundreds of others — at least not yet.

8. Turn your journals into online ecosystems: Convert your collections of articles into go-to online destinations for specific topics.

The most effective online marketing technique is still search engine optimization – that is, bringing people to your website.[14] And the number of leads a business gets from its website goes up steeply with the number of indexed pages[15], that is, the number of pages that have been cataloged by popular search engines such as Google or Bing.

More indexed pages generate more leads

If you are sending e-newsletters, blogging and publishing articles on a topic, you need somewhere to direct people who are interested in going deeper on that topic, but who might not yet be ready to talk with you. At the same time, if you are publishing a lot of material on a topic, you need a place to put it where it can be mutually reinforcing and where people can join in the conversation. You need to create a hub for each issue — in other words, a topic microsite.

Many new topic microsites have emerged over the course of 2010 as companies have understood their value. There is a new one here on distribution and materials handling, and another here on manufacturing operations management. GE Healthcare has recently launched one here on healthcare issues, and GHY, a Canadian trade brokerage, has just launched one here on international trade compliance strategies.

We should just be clear here what we mean by topic microsite, since the word microsite has had a checkered history. Most microsites to date have been for consumer brands or books, have been slickly produced and are shamelessly self-promotional. A topic microsite, like the four examples above, is primarily for the purposes of educating and involving people interested in a topic. It’s OK for there to be a line of sight to the sponsor and its experts, but its purpose is not to directly promote a product or service.


Typical components of a topic microsite

A good topic microsite will have online compilations of articles or white papers around a specific topic, extensively interlinked and supplemented with blogs, news feeds, expert profiles, surveys, polls, forums and so on.

You can read more about how and why to build a topic microsite here.

9. Make the substantive visually exciting: Exploit the possibilities of the online environment to convey your messages in more engaging and easy-to-follow formats.

When you use an online site as a hub for your content (as opposed to a pdf or printed copy), there are a multitude of things you can do to make the material more engaging. Self-help tools, interactive graphics, videos and polls are just a few of the items that can make your content come to life. Many firms’ online articles are text and image replicas of the ones they circulate by email or in print – in other words, their publishing strategy is artificially constrained by the limitations of a print world which we have in effect already left behind.

Apple MicrosoftFor instance, we can all now include graphics that previously were too large and complex to put on a page. We can show a reduced version which enlarges when the reader clicks on it, as Boston Consulting Group has here, or we have several times in this article.

Getting more sophisticated, this chart published by The New York Times shows the respective growth curves of Microsoft and Apple. But it also incorporates a huge amount of data about milestones along the way which you can access by clicking on the information icons. There is no sensible way to do this in a print or pdf version of the page.

McKinsey RolesThis chart by McKinsey embeds information in several dimensions. It shows the relevance of collaboration tools to 12 different work roles. Behind each role is a description of the major activities involved, and an assessment of the usefulness of every tool, both for each activity and for the role overall. There is also a mouse-over description of each tool. There is an enormous amount of information here, but it’s easily presented and digested because the reader only sees a relevant subset at any one time.

If a great picture is worth 1,000 words, a great interactive graphic that explains a complex concept is worth 1,000 pictures (well, a few dozen anyway). Thought leadership is partly about explaining complex ideas simply but powerfully. Graphics or frameworks that order a chaotic topic are potent. Most companies are just scratching the surface of this.

10. Ask your customers: Find out your customers’ and prospects’ preferences for content and use that to fine-tune the production and dissemination of your material.

There is a steady stream of market research material that all of us in the business can use to help us better tune our approaches to what customers want. There are more than a dozen in the footnotes of this article that we have drawn upon here. But none of them is specifically about your customers, whose needs will be subtly different. If you talk directly with clients and prospective clients about what they value for content, — as we did on behalf of a large professional services organization this year — you will find it revealing. You’ll likely confirm some of the major truths of thought leadership marketing – that executives value new insights and real, named examples above all else, for instance. But you may also discover nuances about preferred delivery channels, specificity to their industry or functional area, and pet peeves, that will shine new light on how you can better attract and engage them.

So that’s it – the 10 things you should do in 2011 if you haven’t already. Most likely your firm will have done, or at least started, some things on this list. But we hope we have given you some help in deciding what to do next. And most of all, we hope we have given you enough data, examples and logic that you can decide for yourself if they make sense.



[1] Marketing Consulting Firms In The New Decade, sourceforconsulting.com, 2010

[2] Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends, MarketingProfs & Junta42, 2010

[3] The Rise of the Digital C-Suite, Forbes, 2009

[4] Bain & Co. Retail Practice

[5] An interview with the Bloom Group, 2009

[6] Email Marketing Benchmark Report, MarketingSherpa, 2010

[7] An interview with the Bloom Group, 2010

[8] Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends, MarketingProfs & Junta42, 2010

[9] 101 Charts and Graphs, HubSpot, 2010

[10] Email Marketing Benchmark Report, MarketingSherpa, 2010

[11] Social Network Breakdown, Netrospex, 2010

[12] LinkedIn by the Numbers, HubSpot, 2010

[13] The State of Inbound Marketing, HubSpot, 2010

[14] Advertising Effectiveness Study, Forbes, 2009

[15] The State of Inbound Lead Generation, HubSpot, 2010


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