Some thought leadership marketing lacks a compelling argument about why some serious business problem exists in the world and that there is a new, proven way of solving it. Thus, it falls short in capturing client attention.
To get clients to respond to their marketing campaigns, professional services firms must demonstrate deep and novel insights on business issues–a business point of view. Such insights capture client attention by making high-stakes, confusing issues coherent. And they lower the risk of choosing the wrong advisor.
After 10 years of beating the drum for thought leadership, we are heartened to see so many professional services firms embracing it. The term now generates 1.5 million Google hits. It has its own Wikipedia entry. And it even has been adopted as the nameplate of a conference company (Thought Leadership Summits Inc.).
Professional firms’ marketing budgets are expanding or shifting to feature more thought leadership programs. Many are spending hundreds of thousands and in some cases millions of dollars on glossy publications, email newsletters, conferences, webinars, books and ghostwriters—activities on which some had spent very little or nothing a decade ago. They recognize that the best way to sell expertise is to demonstrate it, not just assert it. They realize a Harvard Business Review article shows one’s command of an issue far better than an advertisement that merely proclaims such expertise.
Even other industries are starting to see the marketing value of thought leadership. Seemingly every week another industry outside of professional services—software (SAP, Microsoft, and Oracle, to name just a few), telecom equipment (Cisco), and corporate real estate (CB Richard Ellis)—extols the virtues of thought leadership as a way to demonstrate unique expertise to their customers. They are publishing views on hundreds of topics, hoping their target audiences are impressed with their expertise.
Yet given the content we see many professional firms trying to pass off as “thought leadership,” thought leadership marketing may soon become another fad that fades away. That’s because the core requirement of thought leadership marketing is not some marketing activity at all—not a book, not a Harvard Business Review article, not an invitation to speak at Davos. To be sure, these are all important marketing channels for thought leadership. But they won’t generate substantial marketplace awareness and revenue unless the ideas that professional firms express in those books, articles and speeches are truly compelling. Put simply, spending big marketing dollars on superficial, “me–too” ideas generates little client interest. And despite much greater spending by professional firms on thought leadership marketing programs, with some exciting exceptions, we read and hear very little that is compelling.
Why? We don’t believe it’s because these firms lack deep, differentiated expertise (although we imagine some do). Rather, when they market their expertise—when they sit down and write articles, speeches, newsletters, books, press pitches and so on—they lack a business point of view. That is, they lack a compelling argument about why some serious business problem exists in the world and that there is a new, proven way of solving it.
They may have a view—even many views—about the problem. And they may have many views about the solution. But their arguments about the problem and solution are not convincing, doing little to create coherency out of chaos. Thus, they fall short in capturing client attention no matter how extensive the professional firm’s thought leadership marketing program. They are akin to a multimillion–dollar marketing of a movie with famous actors but a bad story (there are too many examples to point to); an automaker’s extravagant media blitz for a new car that has no soul; and a great rock band’s latest recording that lacks good music.
A business point of view is based on a deep understanding of an important business issue—its impact on companies, what’s driving it, and why conventional approaches to solving it fall short. Even more important, a point of view must explain how to solve the problem, with real examples that substantiate the solution.
Described this way, the challenge of creating a powerful point of view is one of creating a compelling argument—a case supported by irrefutable facts, engaging examples, and inescapable logic. The argument must also be well-communicated. However, writing isn’t the core skill for point of view development. The ability to make a strong argument is. That, in turn, comes down to capabilities in research and analysis. We say this because too many professional firms take insufficiently developed points of view and expect even the best ghostwriters to make up for the deficiencies in facts, analysis and logic. The typical result is a highly readable but unpersuasive argument. Like Chinese food, it’s tasty but not nutritious.
It’s more than worth the effort to develop a point of view for a simple reason: Professional firms with compelling points of view generate many more leads than competitors that market weak ideas—even if the former spend much less on marketing. Our research1 and experience shows this. A professional firm that spends a million dollars to develop and market a powerful point of view will likely generate many more leads than if it spent 50 times that sum on advertisements proclaiming its superiority. Consulting firms like McKinsey, Bain, and Boston Consulting Group have been built into billion–dollar organizations with little or no advertising.
We’re not against advertising a professional service, especially if it promotes thought-leading content in a book, management journal article, research study or conference program. And we believe advertising that boosts name recognition has value—of quickly getting past the “I’ve never heard of your firm” reaction that give some buyers of professional services pause. But what we find hard to believe is that senior executives choose a professional firm on the basis of a catchy advertising slogan or sports sponsorship. A professional service isn’t an impulse purchase driven by memorable marketing messages recalled at a store checkout line. It is a highly considered purchase, one on which an executive’s career and his company’s competitive standing—even survival—can be at risk.
Creating Coherency and Reducing Risk: Why a Point of View Attracts Clients
Think about the types of information that professional firms use in their marketing programs—e.g., the content in brochures describing their firms and practices, advertisements, website, articles, studies, books and other marketing pieces. Consider such content on two key dimensions: the value of each type of information to prospective clients, and difficulty for the professional firm in generating the content. Information of higher value to prospects helps them solve their business problems. A professional firm’s deep, well–reasoned insights on how to address a particular problem—a point of view—are highly valuable. A point of view backed by in-depth case studies of named companies that solved the problem in the recommended way is highly valuable as well, as proof of solution. In contrast, the information that professional firms put in most of their advertisements, brochures and much of their web copy that simply describes what they do is of less value. It certainly has value—it enables prospects to quickly determine whether a professional firm has a practice or service they are looking for. But such copy doesn’t demonstrate the expertise behind the assertion that the firm has such expertise.
On the second dimension, consider how difficult it is for professional firms to create different marketing content. Writing great brochure copy is not easy, especially in getting firm partners to agree on one way to say things. But it is not highly difficult either: the firm either provides certain services or it doesn’t. That is a far easier task than developing the content for a compelling point of view with client or other case studies that prove the solution. Creating a unique take on a business problem and how to solve it requires big insights on highly complex issues—insights that are rare and hard to communicate. The case studies represent a whole other level of difficulty: first, of finding companies (clients and other firms) that solved the issue in the prescribed way, and second of getting such companies to agree to be mentioned publicly. This content is very difficult for most professional firms to generate and use publicly. But it is the equivalent of gold for a professional firm—content that attracts client attention like a powerful magnet attracts metal.
Seen this way, a compelling point of view—the demonstration of deep, novel and substantiated insights on a problem and its solution—works because it greatly reduces two big uncertainties for buyers of professional services: a) confusion about how to solve a business problem in their firms, and b) the risk of choosing the wrong adviser. A compelling point of view creates coherency out of marketplace chaos. The biggest success stories of thought leadership marketing to date—the ones that embraced by companies around the world—created coherency out of confusion. Jim Collins’ two books have been mega–best sellers because they give senior managers clear advice on the fundamentals of company leadership. Reengineering in the early 1990s brought coherency to the chaotic issue of how companies should best use information technology.
A point of view also reduces an executive’s risk of choosing the wrong professional firm. That risk can be to one’s career; a failed project can tarnish the careers of those who chose the adviser and managed the professional firm. And it can be a risk to the company’s health. A compelling point of view reveals a professional firm’s expertise on the problem at hand. This is why creating frameworks that explain the roots of some business problem and how to solve it are key aspects of a point of view. A framework is a tool for understanding a business problem and how to solve it. Michael Porter’s Five Forces framework shed light on the competitiveness issues of an industry and its attractiveness (to existing and new competitors). It became (and apparently still is) a highly popular tool used by companies to evaluate their strategic positions in their markets. They are the business world’s version of unified theories: ideas that attempt to explain the drivers of some business problem and the optimal way of solving it. Such frameworks help create coherency out of chaos. A professional firm with a unique framework that simplifies complexity has highly attractive intellectual capital. A professional firm with real examples of companies that prove the framework—that if you do “this” you will get “that”—will quickly command an audience.
Determining Whether You Have a Strong POV (and, If Not, How to Develop One)
Having a view on some problem in the business world—the fact that it exists, or the roots of it—isn’t the same as having a robust point of view. Having a view on how to solve one dimension of the problem, with no proof of concept, also is just a view. It is far less likely to attract client attention.
So how do you know whether a point of view in your firm is marketable? We suggest evaluating the ideas by seven criteria: novelty, depth, relevance, validity, practicality, rigor and clarity. The stronger an idea is on each dimension, the more marketable it is—i.e., the more awareness and leads it will generate (if marketed effectively). On spectrum, a point of view that is, say, 50% developed is not likely to generate great interest.
All seven criteria are important, but in our experience two are more critical than the others: novelty (saying something fundamentally new about how to solve some problem in the world) and validity (having examples of named companies that have solved the problem your way and generated substantial and quantifiable financial and operating improvements). Saying something very new and proving it works makes clients stand up and pay attention. (For more information on these criteria, go to The Seven Hallmarks of Compelling Intellectual Capital).
Assessing and Improving a Point of View
Thought leadership marketing requires leading thoughts, not just extensive marketing. Leading thoughts are powerful business points of view on problems in the world and substantiated solutions to them. Time and again, we have seen professional firms with powerful points of view gain a big advantage over competitors—even if those competitors outspent them on marketing. Their points of view became magnets that commanded the attention of target clients—executives who are constantly on the look for better ways to solve pressing business problems.
1. In The Bloom Group’s 2006 survey “Attaining Thought Leadership” of 179 North American professional services firms, more than 80% of those who said the intellectual capital they marketed was superior also said it was effective or very effective in generating substantial market awareness and business leads. Of the companies who said the intellectual capital they marketed was inferior, 67% said their ideas were ineffective or very ineffective at generating awareness and leads.