Top Practitioners Offer Four Best Practices for Thought Leadership

We were speaking recently with a consultant who helps technology companies improve their sales and marketing strategies. We asked him about the changes he’s seen in sales over the years and he said, bluntly, “If you, the salesperson, can’t give me, the buyer, new insights, or new ideas, then you’re just adding to my workload and I don’t have time for you. Today, you need to know more than the buyer.”

How does one impress upon a prospective buyer that maybe, just maybe, you know more than he does?

Thought leadership.

But producing and disseminating good thought leadership – the kind that differentiates your firm from the competition – and getting it read, is not simple. Speaking with leaders who help develop and present thought leadership content for some of the top professional services firms, one significant difficulty emerges: the environment in which thought leadership must fight for attention grows more crowded and competitive every day. Consequently, if a firm is unable to give its audience new insights and ideas that are relevant to it, prospective clients won’t have time for the firm.

The reasons for this are varied, but a lot comes down to the Internet and its publishing technologies. Anyone can publish just about anything online and call it thought leadership and just about everybody does. It’s easy. Plug thought leadership into Google and you get over 190 million links. Put quotation marks around it and you get over a million-and-a-half. So that’s the crowd and the competition.

The importance of providing new ideas and insights derives from the fact that, thanks (once again) to the Internet, the people and businesses buying your services now know a lot more about you and your competitors than they once did. A 2012 Corporate Executive Board study of more than 1,400 B2B customers across industries found that 57 percent of the purchase decision is made before a customer even calls a supplier. Before that customer calls you, he has gone online to find out everything he can (and he can find out a lot) about you, your company, what you have to say, and what everyone else in your space has already said. He’s been surfing his social media channels to learn about his contacts’ experiences with you and whether they were good. In short, the old days, when the person doing the selling knew a lot more about his products and services than the person doing the buying are gone and they’re not coming back.

It, therefore, behooves professional services firms to be out there, online, with new ideas and insights when the prospective client is doing that research. That means producing the best thought leadership (with new insights and useful prescriptions), producing it at the right time (when people are looking for a specific kind of help), and getting it in front of those prospective buyers through a variety of channels (on the web, and as printed material and as presentations at conferences and meetings) in a compelling, consistent, and even industrialized way.

To find out how the best practitioners of the art and science of thought leadership go about doing all the above, to tweak out their strategies and best practices, we spoke with Russell Craig, FTI Consulting Marketing Director; Deloitte Managing Director of Innovation,Craig Muraskin; AlixPartners Chief Marketing Officer Laura Breslaw, and Art Kleiner, editor-in-chief of Booz & Company’s management magazine, strategy+business.

Best Practice #1: Align Thought Leadership Strategy with Business Strategy

If you talk about services you don’t provide, who are you helping?

Professional services firms hire smart people who know a lot about a lot and are usually more than happy to share that knowledge. But only some of what they know is relevant to the services their firms offer. Thought leadership that doesn’t help a firm sell the services it provides is not useful to the prospective customer, the firm, or the individual practitioners producing it.

“We want to make sure that people know that if we put something out there, we can help them with it,” says Deloitte’s Muraskin. “We’re creating thought leadership that’s based upon our business expertise, and it has to line up with what we can do for our clients.” FTI’s Craig says, “We want to showcase our people as leaders in the field, providing innovative, insightful thinking that’s expressed in our thought leadership.”

If a firm’s published thought leadership is not aligned with its offerings, not only is producing it a waste of time and resources, it risks alienating customers. Customers, says Muraskin, will ask, “Why are they spouting off about something outside their areas of expertise?” A lack of alignment between what a firm offers and what it publishes also risks alienating the firm’s internal leadership. “Why are we talking about X? That’s not what we do,” Muraskin says. “If thought leadership is not relevant to the business,” he continues, “the business unit leaders will get tired of it,” and the organization’s interest in producing it will wane, along with the resources it devotes to it.

Kleiner, whose job includes deciding what articles are appropriate for strategy+business, asks himself, “If we’re publishing 50% of our articles on topic X, do we really have enough service offerings in that area to warrant publishing half our content on that topic?”

However, before thought leadership can be aligned with a firm’s business strategy the firm has to have one. You have to ask, Kleiner says, “How much of a distinctive strategy does the firm have? If it doesn’t have one, then thought leadership is going to be all over the board and it will largely be driven by individuals pushing an agenda of short-term expedience”

While thought leadership strategy needs to align with a firm’s strategy, it shouldn’t be straight-jacketed by specific offerings. It’s a delicate balance. As Muraskin points out, thought leadership marketing is not the same as sales marketing; thought leadership marketing sells “the value of the firm.”

Muraskin allows that some of the material Deloitte publishes is designed not to highlight specific offerings but to “demonstrate our methods and capabilities, our import and influence.”

A virtuous cycle is for thought leadership production is one in which the thought leadership reinforces the firm’s strategy by tracking content development in the firm’s various practices. Asking how an article relates to what else the firm is doing “opens up new types of conversations among the thought leaders in the firm,” suggests Kleiner, and allows thought leadership “to build on what the firm has already done, thereby deepening the content.”

The job of making sure that the thought leadership a firm’s subject matter experts are producing aligns with the firm’s overall business strategy generally falls to senior leadership on editorial boards and steering committees and to the marketing group.

“The marketing group has overall visibility that can help align content development efforts,” FTI’s Craig says. “SMEs have narrower, practice-centered views,” and, adds AlixPartner’s Breslaw, tend not to see things “cross-functionally or strategically. That’s where marketing comes into play.”

But how should marketing organize the means of thought leadership production to create that alignment, while at the same time ensuring that the thought leadership pipeline is properly managed and supplied with the high-quality content that will differentiate the firm and get it noticed?

Best Practice #2: Surround Thought Leadership Development with Process

If you don’t manage your pipeline, how can you guarantee quality and performance?

Thought leaders at professional services firms are thought leaders because they dive deeply into their subject areas. As Craig said, they focus intensely on what’s in front of them. To present thought leadership that aligns with a firm’s overall strategy and not just the practice’s marketing must play an operational role. Unfortunately, in a business often defined by individuals with (shall we say) large (and in many cases, well-earned) egos, that’s not always easy.

SMEs “don’t often think about the audience first,” says Breslaw, speaking of her time as Director of Marketing, Americas, at BCG. “They come to marketing after the fact and ask, ‘Help us figure out the audience for distribution purposes.’ That is, after a piece has been developed. Then it’s a scramble to create lists which results in putting execution above strategy. .” And without support from marketing, all too often, Breslaw says, the SMEs “will have the idea, but rarely follow it through to publication..”

To make sure those ideas come to fruition, Breslaw says regular meetings are a must to “ensure that there’s a schedule in place so that people are on the same page and the process keeps moving.”

At FTI, the firm’s SMEs submit ideas to an editorial board in a template that allows the board to vet them before they’re fully developed. In this way, Craig and his fellow board members can help the articles published in the FTI Journal reflect the scope of FTI’s business and the quality of its thinking. The template requires the author of the proposed article to define her audience, describe the insights she will provide, list the prescriptions she will offer that will be helpful to the targeted audience, and provide the data and examples that will back up those insights and prescriptions, validating the article’s credibility. The template reinforces FTI’s belief that good thought leadership does more than simply state a problem (with which most of its audience already will be familiar); it proposes a solution in the most granular way possible. (Some firms fear that if the solution is too specific, the reader will not need the firm to implement it. That fear is generally unfounded, as Tim Parker discussed here.) The editorial board, beyond vetting the ideas, and enforcing the process, also makes sure that the articles are scrutinized by the marketing team, proofreaders, and a legal team prior to publication.

“Without process,” Craig says, “the tendency will be toward everything being author-driven. The articles may lack supporting research. Without process, articles can become idiosyncratic, suffer from tunnel-vision, and end up random and unaligned.”

“We’ve instituted lots of guidelines on quality,” says Muraskin. “We’re meticulous about making sure not only that what people are writing about is what they should be writing about, but also that it’s the right people writing, people who are approved as leaders within the individual parts of the business. So we have a lot of reviews to make sure that we’re getting the right quality, both in terms of issue selection and how things are written and presented.

“The SMEs are given a lot of support, whether it’s professional writers and researchers to work closely with them or their peers. We’ve created a nice system to make sure that we’re giving people the ability to publish and talk and get their voices out there in a way that ensures consistent quality of the deliverable.”

For Craig, it’s important that the material FTI publishes be presented in a simple, natural manner, avoiding language that is overly academic or stuffy.

In other words, marketing should surround thought leadership production with a great deal of process. Not surprisingly, some SMEs kick against that.

“People were complaining about how now, when they want to write their thought leadership, they have to first write up their business case, abstract it, get it reviewed, and have editors. Some of them were complaining that they could do it all themselves, but they also recognized that the end result was a lot better, and the support was a lot better,” says Muraskin.

“Not everybody knows how to write, research, and produce,” he continues, frankly. “If you want to get writers and researchers to support you and you want the firm’s leadership to promote you, and you want marketing to support you, you’re not going to get that if you do it on your own.”

Process also helps temper the conflicts that inevitably arise between strong-minded individuals convinced that their position is the right one and that the article they’ve written is perfect. If a process is in place that represents the collective will of the firm, no one person – on an editorial board or in marketing – will be placed in the uncomfortable position of telling an SME that his or her baby is ugly.

Best Practice #3: Make It Relevant and Timely

If you’re not part of the conversation, who will listen to you?

In the news business, timeliness is a given, an obvious necessity. As the Rolling Stones sang, “Who wants yesterday’s papers?” The same is true for thought leadership.

Craig’s editorial board maintains a calendar to make sure the FTI Journal has a rich pipeline containing the right articles that “leverage events that provide built-in audience interest.” (The tagline on the FTI web site is “Critical Thinking at the Critical Time.”) This is a best practice in journalism; all good editors not only track the daily news, they keep a calendar of upcoming events so that they can be prepared with the right article at a time when the largest possible audience is most interested in it. The same is true of thought leadership.

A firm’s prospective clients are affected by the same events, the same news as everyone else. Within limits, the drivers that move a business to search for a professional services firm are predictable. If, for example, your firm has expertise in the energy space, a major oil spill, or storm, or other newsworthy event that affects that industry is an opportunity to demonstrate your expertise in risk mitigation or alternative energy sources. And an energy company executive looking for the newest thinking on these matters will be more compelled by an article based on, say, the polar vortex of 2014 than by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

Breslaw sees keeping current with “business issues percolating in the market and anticipating the next wave” as a way to optimize selling opportunities. At BCG, she recalls that a global marketing committee would identify five overarching topics for the year (for example, sustainability). Then, within that area, the committee would ask itself what the conversation of the moment was in order to focus its thought leadership production. This commitment to timeliness also characterizes the thought leadership production at Deloitte, FTI, AlixPartners, and Booz & Company.

Best Practice #4: Use Today’s Tools to Stand Out

If you don’t give people what they want, how they want it, why would they want you?

When businesses are in the market for new methods or products to improve their operations, 93% start their research on search engines, according to a 2010 iMedia survey. It’s unlikely that percentage has come down in the last four years. Consequently, it is incumbent upon professional services firms to do whatever they can to stand out in that crowded space.

One way to stand out (and, ultimately, the most important way), is to produce better thought leadership than your competitors; that is, more relevant, insightful, helpful, timely, and novel. But if no one knows how good your content is because no one is seeing it, it’s not doing you a lot of good. Firms must use the tools that attract the audience they want.

For FTI’s Craig, that means using “information graphics, social media, and search engine optimization – anything that can help improve the ranking of your thought leadership. If Google sees that people are tweeting about your thought leadership, or that you’ve got a PowerPoint on it, or a slide show that’s getting a lot of traction, [the search engines are] going to assume that your thought leadership is more important than others’ and rank it higher.” According to a 2013 study by SearchMetrics, high ranking URLs on Google correlate positively to a high number of “likes, shares, tweets, and plus-ones,” and the most important factor in getting a higher ranking is the number of links to that URL, not keywords.

Craig recommends working closely with skilled designers to develop visuals, typography, and colors that “capture the essence of the article’s message and tonality. As more material is being consumed online, it becomes more important to leverage the medium; that is, video, audio, interactive charts, etc.”

Also, the higher quality of the materials, the more effective they will be when readers encounter them online, or a consulting partner hands it to them in print.

“I think because it’s so competitive to get your ideas recognized, it’s important to create a premium site where information can be downloaded and accessed in different formats,” says AlixPartner’s Breslaw. “A proliferation of publishing channels encourages greater content generation, which amplifies competition, making it increasingly difficult to stand out.” Marketing, Breslaw says, must keep the customers’ needs in mind when presenting thought leadership so that “you’re not only providing high-quality content, but you’re giving them the right user experience whether they’re coming to you through mobile, iPad, or desktop.”

Breslaw, like Craig, is a fan of information graphics that, she says, can “tell a story with a single slide. For online formats, that’s very compelling.”

All the experts we spoke with agreed that the landscape for thought leadership was in the middle of an upheaval, and for professional services firms to remain agile and competitive, its development, production, and dissemination needs to be professionalized.

A 2012 Harvard Business Review article described what the authors saw as a profound change in B2B sales strategies. Instead of the old process of selling solutions (“I know your problem and I have a product that will solve it), today’s most successful sales organizations sell “insight” (“You don’t know you have a problem, but you do. Let me help you with it”).

When applied to professional services firms, insight selling’s name is thought leadership.

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