Many professional services companies try to publish a stream of good quality thought leadership material. Some succeed, some fail. Most of the time, both the quantity and quality of the material varies widely. This is true for firms of all sizes.
What distinguishes firms that do it consistently well from those that struggle is having a thought leadership strategy. There are typically five things to consider then developing one, from current services to the overall business strategy, see below.
And there are typically five parts to a complete strategy, from topic focus areas to the overall development approach. But none of it will work unless you have the organization's people on board. Here are the six key people factors that will determine whether a strategy delivers results.
Agreement on problems and audiences
With agreement on the audiences to target, and the problems to own, a company can decide which ideas to develop, and which to avoid. It can decide where to spend its money, and it can focus its efforts on the topics that can differentiate it. That will make sure its clients and prospects know what the firm does, and where it shines.
An editorial director who cares
In our experience, the most important part of a successful thought leadership program is a leader who cares about it. That person could be an editorial director, marketing director, CMO, practice leader, a global head of thought leadership, or even a sole proprietor. But it has to be someone who cares about great content, and that’s often someone who sees the need and takes responsibility without waiting to be asked or assigned. In other words, a believer.
Experts who contribute enthusiastically
The richest seam of content in a firm is usually its practicing subject matter experts. Extracting content from them is quicker and easier than conducting primary research, though both have their place. But that source is only useful if the experts are willing to contribute. In some firms, contributing to thought leadership by writing articles is part of the culture and rewarded by the respect of others. In other, less enlightened firms, the thought leadership “leader” must entice her experts by making contributing attractive, perhaps by working to use the content to generate leads for the authors, or by publishing their material in prestigious journals to raise their professional profiles. If you don’t get your experts on board, your thought leadership production process will perforce be spotty.
Content developers who can help
The editorial director needs people on his team who can help his experts develop content. That’s more than just excellent business writers; that’s people who can tell new ideas from old, organize them to be compelling, and do secondary research as needed to fill in the gaps. The director needs people who can work off a few interviews with the SME, their miscellaneous conference presentations and other materials, and produce finished work with the least imposition on the SME’s time. SMEs have day jobs, and making it easy for them to produce high-quality material will increase their willingness to contribute.
A process for quality assurance
There are several ways to make sure that material queued for publishing is good enough to reflect well on the company. An in-house style guide is one of them. But most important is an editor who can gauge the suitability of each article in progress at every step of the way. Some ideas need to be nipped in the bud, others can be nurtured from unpromising beginnings to spectacular finales with the right amount of oversight and care. An editorial review board, comprising some senior people in the firm, is always a good idea, and their job will be easier if the editor has reviewed each article submitted to them.
Top-management support (or a lack of resistance)
This is a version of the oft-celebrated “tone from the top.” Although much touted, it’s not as critical as you might think. In most of the companies I have worked with, the driver of thought leadership development is that editorial director who most often reports to the CMO. Yes, the CMO (if she is not the actual buyer) is supportive, and the CEO might know it’s happening, but they are often not actively involved. On the other hand, if the CEO (or the head of a business unit) is forever wondering why money is being spent on writing and publishing articles instead of selling, or some other business activity, that will be the end of the firm’s thought leadership program.
Any thought leadership program that gets these things right will generate conversations with potential buyers at the right organizations, at the right levels, about services your company can deliver. There are other things that help, too, and you'll find articles about those below..