Content Discontent: Turning Around a Thought Leadership Program

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By Robert Buday

Nearly every professional services firm we talk to is counting on thought leadership marketing to boost the lead stream – especially with clients squeezing discretionary spending to the bone.   However, many professional firms are deeply unhappy with their thought leadership programs.  Their marketing campaigns aren’t delivering many good leads despite major investments.  Perhaps more frustrating, they don’t know why.

Over the years, we have been asked to assess the thought leadership marketing programs at several companies.  From quantitative and qualitative assessments, we have found three fundamental problems that can greatly reduce the ability of such programs to generate leads:

  • Producing content on the wrong issues
  • Creating poor content
  • Insufficiently marketing good content

Turning around a thought leadership marketing program first requires understanding where it is falling short.  We provide an overview of how to troubleshoot one.

Addressing the Wrong Issues

Choosing the right topics is critical.  The experts in any mid-sized or large consulting, law, accounting, IT services or other professional firm can address a multitude of issues, and many do.  However, we often find that the topics they emphasize are not always the ones in which their firms have the deepest expertise.  That, of course, is a missed opportunity.  Professional firms must create thought leadership on topics a) in which they have deep expertise, b) that are of significant interest in the marketplace, and c) which they have credibility to address. 

Two major consulting and IT services companies asked us to gauge their content on the first two counts, and they were surprised about what they learned. We assessed the first measure by categorizing their client projects by topic.  We found both firms had a large number of projects in several topic areas.  We then categorized the articles they published by topic area and found little relationship between their depth of expertise (as measured by number of client projects) and the number of articles they wrote on those topics.  Furthermore, they asked us to determine whether they were addressing hot issues in the marketplace. We evaluated this by looking at articles published in dozens of leading publications in their industry sectors in recent years and then categorizing them by topic.  We found that in some instances, they addressed hot issues, but in other areas they did not.

Sometimes professional services firms choose topics that are too self-serving for them to be credible.  This is what we found after assessing the thought leadership content of a major IT outsourcing company in 2006 to help get its marketing program in high gear.  We benchmarked the company against 16 IT services competitors on three measures: the topics they were writing about, the quantity of the articles, and their quality.  (We assessed quality based on our seven criteria of thought-leading content: novelty, depth, relevance, validity, practicality, rigor and clarity, explained in depth in this article.)

In quantity and quality, the company was trailing most of its competitors.  But an even bigger problem was the topics the company addressed.  They were issues on which the firm had little inherent credibility: deciding whether to outsource IT services to a third party (of course!), deciding what to outsource, how to choose the right outsourcing vendor, and managing the outsourcing relationship for success.  The company may indeed have expertise on these issues.  But given that it had a huge stake in how prospective clients answer those issues, the IT services firm would never be seen as objective on them, and thus were not worth addressing.

We advised the IT outsourcing firm to choose topics on which it had inherent credibility with customers and deep expertise – e.g., how to run an effective IT help desk, how to manage an effective call center, and so on.  By demonstrating its substantial expertise on such issues, many prospective clients would be able to see that the firm’s expertise was deep.   The company then asked us to help it create thought-leading content on one of these issues.  We designed and conducted a major study on the issue, analyzed the data with the firm’s subject matter experts, and helped them publish a number of articles in key external publications, as well as publish their own material.  The result of being “on topic” with research-based material was strong content that was at the heart of a very successful marketing and sales campaign, one that has been credited with helping generate tens of millions of dollars in new IT services contracts.

Creating Poor Content

The professional services industry is replete with articles, white papers, survey reports, presentations, seminars, blogs, books and other marketing programs that purport to offer deep insights on critical business problems.  Much of this falls far short of the mark – i.e., the threshold required to move an executive to seek further information about a professional firm.  One only needs to consider the very high article rejection rate at Harvard Business Review or Sloan Management Review (the vast majority of submissions don’t make it) to realize how difficult it is to create substantive, novel insights on topics.  

For both the marketer and the fee-generating expert in a professional services firm, determining whether a certain piece of content is strong can be difficult.  Sometimes, understanding what an expert is trying to say can be arduous.  We’ve seen a number of poorly worded and poorly constructed concepts disguise the gem of an idea.  Conversely, a brilliantly written paper can hide the fact that the idea is dull.

So how can the people responsible for marketing the ideas of a firm’s experts decide which ideas are good or bad?  We have written extensively over the years about the hallmarks of thought-leading content. We believe our seven criteria are enduring: having fundamentally new ideas about the roots of a problem and how to solve it; showing deep knowledge about the problem and solution; addressing issues that matter (or proving that seemingly unimportant issues do matter); expressing one’s mastery of an issue in clear language; having rigorous logic; possessing irrefutable proof that the solution works; and demonstrating an approach that clients can implement.  All seven criteria are important, and the expertise that professional firms communicate in their marketing programs must achieve them.

In assessing the quality of a point of view, we have found it illuminating for both marketing professionals and the experts in their firms to rate their ideas on all seven criteria.  However, one criterion is more important than the other six: validity, that a professional firm’s solution to some problem has been effective.  More than anything else, clients need evidence that an adviser’s advice truly works.  Marketers can quickly gauge the power of an idea by asking the experts what proof they have that their solution works – i.e., companies (especially clients) that have followed the approach and have substantial results to show for it.  When the experts can offer a proof of solution – even when the solution is fuzzy or doesn’t sound novel—marketers should sit up and take notice.  The most important test of thought leadership has been met.  The marketer’s task is to help the expert(s) structure his point of view, clarify the language he uses to explain it, and articulate his approach to solving the problem.

Insufficient Marketing

The third shortcoming of many thought leadership marketing programs is lack of follow through in marketing.  Typically, one self-published article is issued but that’s it.  To find an audience, any point of view requires numerous marketing activities—several op-eds written in external publications, conference presentations, and the like.  But too many times, an expert’s idea comes to market through only one marketing vehicle.

We know how this happens.  Marketers often have to publish dozens of ideas of their firm’s experts in any year.  With a small marketing staff –even drawing on outside resources – Marketing is swamped with requests to “get me published.”  Each author gets his article but that’s about it as Marketing moves on to the next author.

But the rapid rise of online marketing in professional services is changing the game.  The cost of publishing has fallen dramatically.  Webinars have lowered the cost and complexity of running marketing events.   And by posting thought-leading content on their websites (or creating topic-specific microsites), professional firms can keep their ideas in front of clients and prospects continuously.  They don’t have to keep dropping publications in the mail to remind clients of their presence (and expertise).

How can you tell whether you’re putting a sufficient number of the right marketing activities behind an idea?  Look at the ideas that you have published and tick off how many of the following things you have done to get them to market:

  • Website
    • Posted self-published articles on your website?
    • Featured these articles on the home page for a period?
    • Included them in your RSS feed?
    • Included extracts and links in your e-newsletter?
    • Made a PDF available for download – without payment and preferably without registration?
  • Blogs
    • Posted them on the author’s blog if there is one?
    • Featured them in blogs written by other employees?
    • Alerted other industry bloggers to their existence?
  • External publications
    • Sent a press release?
    • Written and submitted op-eds based on the ideas to relevant industry publications, especially online publications?
    • Considered posting them on a paid-for white paper distribution site?
  • Speaking engagements
    • Included the ideas in public conferences, seminars or webinars that you have run?
    • Proposed the author as a speaker to thirdparty conferences, seminars or webinars?
  • Social media
    • Announced on LinkedIn or relevant LinkedIn groups?
    • Sent a  twitter message to the company’s/author’s followers?
    • Put social media links on the article on the website (e.g., to delicious and Digg) so that others can easily recommend them?

Most of these don’t cost much money but they take time.  To be most effective, they should be part of a coordinated campaign of promoting a manageable number of concepts in the course of a year.  One marketing activity per concept is not nearly enough to introduce the idea in the marketplace.  As with advertising, frequency of message is critical.  But that can only happen when marketing focuses its thought leadership budget on a limited number of points of view, an argument we laid out in this article last year. 

A number of management consulting firms appear to be focusing their thought leadership marketing programs, realizing the need to say more about fewer issues.  In a recently launched microsite appropriately called “What Matters,” McKinsey focuses on 10 issues.

By examining the appropriateness of the topics they are writing about, the quality of their ideas (particularly the “proof of solution” offered), and how extensive their marketing campaigns are for each idea, professional firms can get a better handle on how to spend their thought leadership marketing investments.  Such assessments can turn subjective discussions into less subjective ones that markedly improve marketing’s effectiveness.

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