I look at the last two decades, and especially the last five years, as the era in which thought leadership marketing went mainstream – when a large number of professional services firms recognized the value of marketing their expertise in educational (rather than promotional) ways – articles, speeches, books, seminars and so on (rather than brochures, advertisements trade show booths, etc.).
Thought leadership marketing, which McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group and other consultancies pioneered in the 1960s, has now been adopted by many consulting, IT services, corporate training, accounting and, to a lesser degree, law firms. (Maybe the shakeout in the legal sector will spawn law firms to think more expansively about changing their age-old ways of attracting clients. Those that do will have a significant competitive advantage in marketing given the slow pace of change in their sector.)
Over this decade, I see professional firms continuing to get serious about building strong capabilities in thought leadership marketing – hiring talented ghostwriters, event marketers, social media whizzes and others who can package and market their professionals’ ideas. But this won’t be enough – not nearly enough – for them to generate big returns on their investments. The reason is these investments will do little to improve the content of their marketing campaigns – the ideas they bring to
bear about how to solve a given business problem.
Professional firms themselves say it's the strength of the ideas they market -- not the strength of their marketing programs -- that is the key to generating leads and widespread awareness of their expertise among clients. See our research on this here.
That’s an R&D problem, not a marketing problem. Professional firms that excel at thought leadership R&D – at developing truly innovative and effective approaches to solving their clients’ business problems – will gain a big advantage. (One key R&D tool is deep case study research.)
If professional firms market their ideas well and train their professionals to deliver them with consistent quality, they will be hard to stop.