10 Ways to Power up Your Thought Leadership Marketing

A lot’s gone on in the thought leadership marketing world these past 12 months. For instance, social media, which played a yuuge role (we still don’t exactly know how yuuge) in the election of Donald Trump, has thoroughly captured the attention of the executive suite as an optimal channel for thought leadership marketing. According to Demand Gen’s 2016 “Content Preferences Survey Report,” 85% of B2B buyers identified LinkedIn as a top channel for “sharing business-related content.” (Twitter, at 65%, came next; it used to be Facebook.) However, a 2017 Forbes/Deloitte survey of 300 global CXOs finds their preferred format for receiving business insights is “feature- length articles and reports.”

What’s a thought leadership marketer to make of that? Tweets or white papers? Blogs or research reports?

At the same time, the sheer volume of thought leadership being produced has raised the bar for the quality and quantity of material a B2B firm must develop. Not surprisingly, editors at leading third-party journals (Harvard Business Review, Forbes, etc.) tell us they’re overwhelmed, and no longer have time to work with sub-par submissions. If an article isn’t publication-ready, it will quickly be rejected.

That puts more pressure on thought leadership marketers to produce impeccable work.

To cope with the furious pace of change transforming today’s thought leadership marketing landscape, these are the top ten things we think a firm should be doing. Because we’ve been in the business of thought leadership marketing a long time, we know that executives abhor unsubstantiated assertions. So, all our recommendations in this article are supported by data and/or examples, and many have links to other articles. That way, you can follow the logic, disagree if you think we’ve got it wrong, and delve deeper if you want. Also, if you like, you can use the list below to take shortcuts to the topics in which you’re most interested.

OK, here we go.

  1. Create a content strategy
  2. Go deep and move the market
  3. Industrialize content development
  4. Deliver your content to where it's valued
  5. Deliver it personally
  6. Showcase your experts
  7. Formalize your social media strategy
  8. Build microsites
  9. Make your content visually exciting
  10. Ask your customers

 

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

We are hearing many firms cry out that they can’t publish good material in sufficient quantity to differentiate themselves in the market. And that’s validated by their target customers. A 2017 Edelman and PwC survey reports that 86% of business decision-makers found the thought leadership they consumed “only good, mediocre, or poor” in quality. That is, not differentiating.

Only 6% of B2B marketers rate their organization’s use of content marketing as “very effective.”

That shouldn’t be a surprise. According to the B2B Content Marketing: 2016 Budgets, Benchmarks, and Trends study, conducted by the Content Marketing Institute (CMI), less than a third of marketers “have a documented content marketing strategy” even though those that do “are more effective in nearly all areas of content marketing.”

 


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We know. Creating (not to mention executing) a coherent strategy is hard work. But, without one, it’s impossible to focus on those issues your firm should own, the topics in which you have the deep expertise -- expertise the market and the executives you are trying to reach are looking for. And, as no firm can possess cutting-edge thinking on everything, you must pick your battles. That means identifying the topics you want your firm to own, and on which you will deliver breakthrough insights.

For example, over the last several years McKinsey has consistently published articles on the Internet of Things (IoT). If you search on Google for IoT, a McKinsey primer leads the pack. But McKinsey largely focuses on a relatively narrow range of IoT topics, primarily security, industrial opportunities, and artificial intelligence (AI). This focus may explain why McKinsey can boast over 100 major client IoT engagements over the past two years. (And when McKinsey describes an engagement as “major,” well, that’s saying something major.)

Several factors come into play when deciding what topics to own. One is a company’s level of expertise, and another is the opportunity or white space in the market (Figure 1). 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. And topics on which the firm’s expertise is on par with its competitors, and for which there remain few unanswered questions, might be good ones for marketing to ignore.

Figure 1: Picking Your Topics

 

Focusing on a few topics to own isn’t an easy step for most firms to take because it involves deciding what not to do. But strategy is always about making tough decisions and marketing is not exempt from the tough choices other parts of the business must make every day.

 

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

Executives embrace new ideas that are proven to work. From the assembly line to ERP to agile programming methods, almost all the good ones have been developed by practitioners and research departments. The consultants and gurus who have later packaged and communicated them have been discoverers rather than inventors.

For example, Tom Davenport – then Director of Research at Babson College – decided to study how companies were using business intelligence (BI) software. Davenport interviewed managers at 32 companies to see what those that were using BI well were doing. That work turned into a Harvard Business Review article, then a book, Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning (written with Jeanne Harris), and today business analytics is one of the fastest-growing services in consulting and IT. In 2017, Garter estimated BI and business analytics to be an $18.3 billion global market, and still growing.

Davenport did not sit at his desk and dream up that market. Nor did he invent BI or analytics. He went out (to 32 businesses) and looked at what was going on in an organized, documented manner. He did research, put it together, and created an insight that is still moving the market. Now, you may have good material in-house already, but to create an insight that blows people away, as Davenport’s did, you will have to supplement that with 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 always uncovers something new. And those new insights can inform product and service delivery, consolidating competitive advantage for the firm that produces or discovers them (Figure 2). Note what comes first in Figure 2: case study.

The world is wide, and rich with ideas, but they won’t come to you; you must ferret them out.

Figure 2. A Process for Intellectual Capital Development

 

 

3. Industrialize content development: Establish a process – invent a machine – that will deliver a stream of insights on your chosen topics.

Because standards are continually rising for both the quality and quantity of content, you can’t meet them without a process. In fact, you need at least two processes: one for developing content on the topics you want to own (where you are on safari for breakthrough insights), and one for developing content on the topics that you want to publish on from time to time, but where you don’t expect to be on the cutting-edge (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Approaches to Thought Leadership Development

(Source: Bloom Group Research, 127 consulting firms)

 

The right approach or approaches to use for creating research-based insights depends on the firm, especially its size and culture. For instance, you might set up your own research institute (as McKinsey has at McKinsey Global Institute), establish a research consortium or online community with clients (as LexisNexis has) or partner with other say, a university or a research firm.

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 numerous articles, white papers, conference presentations, webinars and so on, for each topic. That approach generally costs less and takes less time than developing the same number of pieces on different topics, and, as they all derive from the same overarching point of view, the messages reinforce each other. That means they have greater market impact.

For example, a 2015 research report conducted by FTI Consulting, “What Companies Do Right (and Wrong) in Emerging Markets,” about managing risk, became the source material for articles bylined by seven FTI Consulting senior experts and published in the Harvard Business Review, Risk Management Monitor, Corporate Compliance Insights, and CFO.com. The study also was cited in the Wall Street Journal. FTI Consulting wanted to promote the depth and breadth of its expertise. One study, and mission accomplished.

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

In marketing-led development, marketers probe the organization to find the good ideas that can be turned into thought leadership material. As Art Kleiner, editor in chief of PwC’s strategy+business magazine, once told us: “We help client-facing staff crystallize their practice into thought.”

At other firms, especially those where SMEs are recognized (and rewarded) for their contribution to intellectual capital development, they propose 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: Writing is just 10% of the job. If that. Thought leadership content development is not a writing process; it is an idea development process. The writing comes at the end, after the hard work of identifying new ideas and developing a novel, actionable point of view that aligns with the firm’s expertise and its ability to deliver corresponding services.

 

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

Demand Gen’s 2016 “Content Preferences Survey” found email the overwhelmingly favorite channel (98%) for sharing business-related content. And the most effective email marketing strategy is to deliver content that is relevant to a particular audience segment (Figure 4). 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 seem relevant to them will be deleted posthaste.

 Figure 4. Email Marketing: What Works, What Doesn’t

 

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 by demographics, but you can also (and many firms do) give people the option to self-select the topics they are interested in. This markedly improves the chances material will be read.

 

5. When possible, deliver it personally: Every time you publish something, have your professionals send or deliver it to all their contacts they know will be interested.

A 2015 Forrester survey reports that “74% of business buyers conduct more than half their research online before making an offline purchase.” That means that by the time a buyer speaks to a salesperson, the buyer’s mind is three-quarters made up. How did he or she make up his or her mind? Why are they reaching out to your salesperson with their minds pretty well made up? That’s where marketing – and your engaged SMEs – come in. They get the firm’s thought leadership in front of prospective buyers early in the customer buying journey. That’s why marketing and sales better be aligned, and why it behooves your SMEs to help get your firm’s thought leadership in front of the right people. 

A 2016 Aberdeen Group report found that “empowering marketers with visibility into sales utilization yields a 33% higher lead acceptance rate.” Furthermore, it found that best-in-class organizations are 28% more likely “to deploy a formal process that aligns content with… sales” (Figure 5).

Figure 5. An Integrated Sales and Marketing Process

Also, when marketing and sales are aligned, marketers and business developers are much more likely to consistently promote the same services. This avoids wasted time, effort, and the dead ends that customers bump up against when they reach a salesperson with a request for which he is unprepared.

If the account manager is the person who delivers marketing collateral to a client, he or she won’t be blindsided when the client asks to talk with someone about it. Plus, by personally delivering it, the account manager can help ensure that the firm’s material, its thought leadership, cuts through the clutter and gets read. That’s more effective than any catchy, buzzy headline.

 

6. Showcase your experts: Make sure your content is clearly bylined by two or more appropriate experts (who can close deals and deliver services), and provide an easy way to engage with them.

B2B firms need to do more than publish in journals to showcase the authors of their articles and establish their authority. Getting published isn’t the goal; it’s a means to an end: Enhancing the reputation of a firm and encouraging people to contact the authors for advice. The first objective of an article or white paper is to attract and engage prospects; the next is to make them hungry for more – hungry enough to shoot off an email or pick up the phone to talk with these authors chock full of insight into the business buyers’ challenges.

At some point, if a prospect wants to talk, he or she will want to talk to a qualified professional. Going through the switchboard will not work. Therefore, don’t be shy about showing off your authors’ credentials, and provide contact details along with links to their blogs and bios.

We sometimes hear firms say that if they make a big investment in promoting their professionals, that investment will have been squandered should the expert leave (as they are wont to do). That’s a reasonable fear, and the reasonable response is to promote more than one professional or practitioner as an expert; that is, have more than one byline on every article. When Paul Dunay, now U.S. Brexit Marketing Leader at PwC, was director of marketing at Dutch management and consulting firm 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.”

That’s still good advice. A great example of professionals promoted well is the website of the law firm WilmerHale. Pick any one of the articles on the firm’s website (say this one, on alternate fee arrangements, published on Aug. 2, 2017, and bylined by three of the firm’s partners) and click on any of the authors’ names. You’ll find an email address and a phone number (with a downloadable vCard), a bio, their awards, articles published, speaking engagements, and recent professional highlights. This is a firm that’s proud to show off the experience and expertise of its practitioners and make them easy to reach.

And if one of the three authors leaves for greener pastures, there are still the other two.

(By the way, WilmerHale’s profits increased 6% year-over-year in 2016, with profits-per-partner growing 12%, making for happy partners who, we’re sure, are only too happy to work with marketing to share the IP they create with their clients.)

 

7. Formalize your social media strategy: Institutionalize the social media marketing activities that matter.

Social Media Channels: Today, posting content (other than blogs) on social media is the top-ranked B2B content marketing tactic, with 93% of B2B markets using it, according to CMI’s 2016 Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends – North America. Breaking down the huge category of social media, we get:

  • LinkedIn, the most popular channel for distributing content, according to CMI, with 94% of marketers using it. That makes sense as the average CEO has 930 connections on LinkedIn, and (per LinkedIn) 71% of professionals believe it is a trustworthy source of information. Content marketers rank it first, at 66%, for effectiveness. Clearly, LinkedIn is a good place for your professionals and practitioners to engage in discussions and to post excerpts that lead their connections to your content.
  • Twitter (used by 87% of B2B content marketers) recently has surpassed Facebook as a B2B content marketing platform, with 55% of B2B marketers calling it “effective,” as compared to only 30% for Facebook. Twitter provides an excellent way to monitor what’s going on in your field, and point to content you’ve published. (NB: To be effective at pointing to your own material, you need to retweet others’ material first. That’s how you build a following. Making sure you only retweet what’s good is how you establish trust. Do both those things, and people will be inclined to follow you and retweet your tweets. That’s a virtuous cycle.)
  • YouTube is used today by 74% of B2B content marketers because – no surprise here – people, even business people, like watching video. According to Insivia, today, if given a choice, 59% of executives would choose video over text, and over half of senior executives share work-related content with their colleagues every week. If you’re going to have an omnichannel strategy for disseminating thought leadership content (and, why wouldn’t you?), you can’t ignore video, and if you can’t ignore video, you can’t ignore YouTube.
  • Facebook (used by 84% of B2B content marketers) has slipped behind YouTube and SlideShare. Less than a third of content marketers rate it effective. Increasingly, it’s a platform for B2C (and B2C advertising), not B2B, which may be why the company’s value is rising astronomically, and Mark Zuckerberg in 2017 became America’s fourth-wealthiest individual (behind Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Jeff Bezos, in that order.) However, Facebook has its B2B uses, including finding people, recruiting talent, and tapping its community for ideas. Everyone’s on Facebook; you can’t ignore it.
  • Blogs: According to HubSpot, companies that published over 16 blogs per month on their websites in 2016 got over triple the traffic as did companies that posted four or fewer. More traffic means higher Google rankings. And companies that posted over 16 blogs per month got over four times as many leads as did companies that post four or fewer. In other words, get your professionals and practitioners blogging. Help them as they need it, but always make sure to showcase them appropriately. (See thought leadership content marketing tactic #6.) And, for tips on how to improve their blogs, see “How to Structure Your Blog Posts,” and “Write Better Blogs: Three Critical Rules.”
  • Email Newsletters: Everybody has email, and email works as a marketing tool. Email has a median ROI of 122%, higher than any other marketing format. Therefore, it’s no surprise that 72% of content marketers ask their audience to subscribe to email newsletters. A subscription to a newsletter not only gives marketers information about who is interested in your company’s services, it creates a continuing engagement with a possible lead, and, if done well, newsletters can turn subscribers into brand advocates.

 

8. Build microsites: Convert your collections of articles into go-to online destinations for specific topics.

The most effective online marketing technique is a search-engine-optimized (SEO) website. The number of leads a business gets from its website goes up steeply with the number of indexed pages; that is, the number of pages that have been cataloged by Google.

If you are sending newsletters, blogging, and publishing articles, you need somewhere to send people whose interests may in just one area among the many services you offer. These people are interested in the subject, but may not be ready to talk with you yet. At the same time, if you are publishing a lot of articles on that topic, you need a place to put them where they can reinforce each other and exhibit your deep expertise. The way to do that is to create a hub for each topic: a microsite (Figure 7). We can debate whether that should be under your main domain or a separate one, but the key thing is that it’s recognizable as a self -consistent site on a topic.

For example, McKinsey publishes a lot of articles that cover the automotive space. If they were scattered throughout the main site, a company executive looking for help in that space – say, a supplier wondering how he fits into the new technology ecosystem of internet-connected cars – wouldn’t want to search the vast McKinsey site to find relevant information, perusing drop-down menus. Instead, he can go directly to McKinsey’s automotive and assembly microsite, find articles relevant to his business, see the McKinsey partners working in that space (and how to get in touch with them), and be directed to other microsites that go even deeper on ever narrower automotive topics (to which he must subscribe, adding to McKinsey’s data repository of information about potential leads). McKinsey, incidentally, prefers its content microsites under its main domain – it transferred all its content a few years ago from its mckinseyquarterly.com domain, which now redirects.

 

9. Make your content visually exciting: Exploit the possibilities of online to convey your messages in more engaging ways.

When you use an online site as a hub for your content (as opposed to a pdf or printed copy), there are many things you can do to make the material more engaging. Self-help tools, interactive graphics, and polls can make your content come to life.

For instance, we can now include graphics that once 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 we have several times in this article.

Figure 6. Making the History of Strategy Come Alive

 

Getting more sophisticated, the chart shown in Figure 6, published in BCG Perspectives, shows the growth in business strategy frameworks over time. But it also incorporates a huge amount of data about each which you can access by clicking on the corresponding dot. There is no way to do this in a print or pdf version of the page.

If a great picture is worth 1,000 words, an 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.

 

10. Ask your customers: Find out your customers’ and prospects’ preferences for content, and use that feedback 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 give our customers what they want. But none of that research describes your customer. If you talk directly with clients and prospective clients about what they value – as we did on behalf of a large professional services organization this year – you will find it revelatory. 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, and pet peeves that will shine a new light on how you can do a better job attracting and engaging them.

So, that’s it – the 10 things you can do to ramp up your thought leadership marketing…  if you haven’t already. Hopefully, your firm is already doing some of the things on this list. But we hope we have provided some help in how you can raise your game.

 

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