How a Consulting Firm Used Thought Leadership to Transform Its Business
By Tim Parker
An interview with Steve Cokkinias, VP Sales and Marketing, FMG Leading
FMG Leading is a human capital strategy consulting firm. In early 2016 FMG leading realized that its sales-led strategy was not helping the firm grow as fast as it wanted, and it needed to make a change. A year later, FMG Leading is well known in the PE industry for its expertise in assessing and developing executive leaders and their teams, and business is much stronger. Over that last year, the firm learned many lessons. Bloom Group spoke with Steve Cokkinias, VP of Sales and Marketing, about the company’s journey.
BG: What prompted you to try to transition from a sales-led consulting firm to a marketing-led one?
SC: We weren’t getting the return we wanted from our sales efforts. We tried all the usual things – hiring sales people and training them in the latest techniques – but we still relied on referrals and struggled to generate new leads. Then about 2 years ago, we engaged a consulting company growth advisor, Richard Aldersea, at the time with Equiteq. He opened our eyes as why we should drive our growth with marketing rather than sales. If your customers can’t articulate their problem, they can’t buy a solution. If they can articulate it, then they want to know who can help, and who is best. We learned that you can reach these prospects and get onto their radar with effective thought leadership marketing.
BG: Do you think you’d have reached that conclusion without hearing an outside voice?
SC: No, I don’t. We were more skeptical about the ROI for generating inbound leads than we were about the ROI for sales, because we knew less about it. The ROI on a white paper or thought leadership piece is a bit like the ROI for an exercise program: how fit you become depends on how good the exercise regime is, how diligent you are, and other factors such as rest, and what you eat. With marketing, a lot depends on how good the article is, where you publish, what your competition is doing, and so on. We didn’t know anything about those things, and so we had a hard time justifying the investment.
Plus, we’d already published a book, and we were already writing and publishing blog posts and articles, and we weren’t getting as much traction with them as we’d have liked. That added to the skepticism.
We had to realize it was OK to try without knowing the ROI ahead of time, to try it and see. And we needed someone from outside the firm to encourage us to take the plunge, based on their experience. Richard recommended that we talk with Bloom Group. And your advice was clear: to generate interest we needed to write an article for publication by a third party, not just for our website.
BG: How was that received?
SC: That was an ah-ha moment. That got us to realize that our book hadn’t generated revenue because it wasn’t well marketed, and the articles hadn’t attracted attention because few people saw them on our website. The content was solid; but it wasn’t in front of, or written for, the right audience. Also, our existing work wasn’t suitable for third-party journals because it mostly comprised opinion pieces with few data or client case studies to underpin them. We began to understand that quality, research-based and data-driven articles given wider exposure could monetize our marketing. And we actually had the data and examples to support our opinions; we just had not known how to tie it all together.
That was the first of several epiphanies we were about to experience.
BG: Why just the first?
SC: Because there was so much we still didn’t know. As soon as you consider submitting an article to a journal such as Harvard Business Review (HBR) or the Journal of Private Equity, you ask yourself; How do I submit this, and to whom? What are the editors looking for? How do I write for them? What tone do they want? What is their format—do we need citations, charts, author information, headshots, academic qualifications? And on and on. There is no way anyone without extensive prior experience can know this. There’s no website that lays out all the answers for you; each publication has different audiences and different standards.
Once you understand there are thousands of others trying to do the same thing you’re doing, and that acceptance rates at the best journals are in the fractions of one percent, you realize you can’t do this on your own. You need a guide with experience.
BG: What were some of the things you learned as you developed your first article?
SC: Too many to list, perhaps, but these were the critical three:
- Be crystal clear which single client-relevant problem you’re solving. Don’t write an article to show off what you know: instead, help your reader solve his problem. I’ve used that lesson ever since. Now, if someone comes to me and says they want to write a blog post, my first question is, what client problem will it solve? And how is our solution unique?
- Focus. It doesn’t impress anyone for you to be a know-it-all about everything. For our first article, we started off wanting to write about our collective 30 years of knowledge around building high-performance leadership teams. Eventually, we narrowed the focus to CEOs, and then further narrowed specifically to CEOs of PE portfolio companies. But it took us a few months, with help, to get there.
- You must write for the readers of the publication to which you are submitting. The editor you send it to will review it to ensure that it does, that it’s something his readers will interact with online. If he doesn’t think it will, he’ll reject it. His top concern will usually be how your submission adds value to his readership.
Because we had all this learning to do, it was tough to get the first one done. It was hard to get the time we needed from contributors, who all have client work and other priorities that took priority over writing an article. It took longer than we thought it would, and I didn’t earn any popularity points by continually pushing, following-up, and chasing down deadlines to get it across the finish line.
BG: Once the article was submitted and approved, did attitudes change?
SC: Once HBR accepted and published the article, they posted links to their roughly three million followers on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Our website has a few thousand subscribers, which is insignificant by comparison. HBR’s readers and followers engaged with our article thousands of times with likes, retweets, shares, and comments. We made sure everyone in the firm saw the interest and exposure we were getting; that was the tipping point. Our CEO, founder, and executive team — they were all instantly on board. Seeing that much exposure from a single article – something we had never previously achieved, changed our entire firm’s attitude to thought leadership marketing forever.
BG: Did it help you win business?
SC: Without a shadow of a doubt. The phone didn’t immediately start ringing off the hook, but it made it much easier for us to get meetings with prospective clients. We ran an outreach program offering to meet with new private equity clients, and our success rate was eight out of ten for what was essentially cold calling. We added a link to the HBR piece in email taglines, and included it with our outreach efforts. We were shocked when a director of a PE firm we called in Chicago remarked, “I think nearly everyone in this industry has read your article.” He agreed to meet us in person to discuss ways we could work together. And we recently received a “cold” inbound email from a CEO whose board recommended that he reach out to us after reading our HBR piece.
BG: What do you think was the secret to success? Did it depend on you driving the process from the beginning?
SC: I am sure that was important. In the beginning, you need a single champion to drive things forward. The CEO (in our case; perhaps the CMO in larger firms) must support that person. The sponsor doesn’t have to be a complete believer; initially he may be skeptical, but he must at least make room for the champion to try.
The champion must work hard to get the first one done, and once published, things will take care of themselves. Today, I don’t have to drive nearly as hard. Senior people on our team come forward and ask how they can get involved. They want to help the firm grow, and they probably don’t mind burnishing their reputation a little along the way.