Thought leadership can be seen as an evolutionary timeline with five phases. Here’s how to move up the scale so you can generate revenue through thought leadership.
B2B companies vary tremendously in the ability to gain recognition for their expertise. Many firms with deeper and more differentiated expertise are not nearly as well known as certain competitors. Why? It’s because their capabilities in developing expertise for public dissemination and taking it to market lag their peers. In this article, we present a framework for assessing a firm’s capabilities for becoming thought leaders – an evolutionary timeline with five phases. Drawing on examples, we explain how to move up the evolutionary scale and power up a firm’s ability to generate revenue through thought leadership.
By Robert Buday and Tim Parker
A number of B2B firms have complained to us over the years that they aren’t getting market recognition for their expertise. An executive at one firm recently told us that the management team has been quite disappointed over the years that one of its biggest competitors is far better known (it has a bestselling book, tons of press articles that feature it and more). They felt bemused because they believe their firm’s expertise is superior to that of its famous rival.
Sound familiar? The ability of B2B companies and their people to become recognized as experts in their markets varies tremendously. From our experience, the irony is that, like the firm mentioned above, it isn’t necessarily because they have less expertise than competitors whose people are basking in the limelight. What is far more variable is something else: their proficiency at content development (codifying existing knowledge or creating new knowledge) and customer development (acquiring customers who need that knowledge). Some firms are surprisingly unsophisticated at both. Others started in a primordial state but evolved over time.
So after ruminating about the thought leadership capabilities of several dozen professional services and other B2B companies we have worked with (or for) over the years, we believe we can place these firms into five categories, ranging from primitive to advanced. Because many of them have over time improved their ability to develop and market compelling content, these categories can be seen as stages in the evolutionary development of a company’s thought leadership function.
Thinking about where your company is on the evolutionary scale might help it move to the next stage and thus raise your firm’s game in thought leadership. If your firm is less advanced, the stages might provide insights on why you’re not getting the value you expected from your thought leadership investments.
So here are the stages, starting with the most primitive:
Stone Age: Subject Experts Fashion Their Own
In firms that are stuck in this evolutionary phase, subject experts (consultants, lawyers, accountants, software development project managers, researchers, etc.) develop and market their own content. They don’t see why they need anyone to help them develop or market their ideas (other than, perhaps, graphic designers). They write their own white papers, email them through their personal email lists, and often arrange their own speaking engagements.
These firms are easy to recognize. They often slather their white papers with jargon and acronyms that obfuscate rather than edify. Their writings are short of real examples that illustrate and fortify their prescriptions. And the writing is often tortured, with the key point buried, unarticulated or just absent.
A common problem with companies whose thought leadership practices are stuck in the Stone Age is that they are late to market with new insights. Since their professionals aren’t professional writers, they can’t write quickly. A draft of a white paper that might take a talented ghostwriter two days will take the subject expert weeks or months to pen. The delays are even greater when several people are collaborating on a point of view, can’t agree on exactly what it is, and use draft after draft after draft to try to get each other quite literally on the same page.
Thus, their content is often caught in a logjam. One strategy consulting firm brought us in some years ago to help end their logjam. The firm’s management journal had virtually ground to a halt as a small editorial board of senior partners vetoed submissions from within the firm, pointing to their high editorial standards. Many of these contained promising ideas that might be worthy of publication, but only if they could be developed and better communicated. When that job was given to us, we spent time with each author to capture their ideas in an outline. After several go-rounds with the outline, we then took the writing off their hands. The logjam soon gave way.
Some professionals are capable writers too (Gary Hamel is an example from the consulting world). But when most subject experts write their own articles, books and other content, the insights can be underwhelming, incoherent and unreadable. The ironic thing is these professionals usually don’t lack unique expertise or impressive client work. What they do lack is an ability to develop nascent ideas sufficiently for publication and communicate them in a way the unenlightened can understand. Competitors beat them to the punch with clear, compelling content.
Medieval: Subject Experts Let Marketers Tinker on the Margins
In these firms, subject experts realize their limitations as communicators and allow marketers to help them communicate their ideas. But the problem is that the content is not often robust to begin with. The content of a white paper or seminar presentation is typically based on a small sample of client work and supplemented with secondary research. But the subject experts are reluctant to go beyond their base of experience. They often are not open to learning how companies that aren’t clients have tackled the business problems on which they try to position themselves as experts.
In these companies, subject experts allow marketers to communicate their ideas but not to help them develop their thinking – e.g., find examples to support arguable points and identify missing pieces of logic in a complex argument. This process all too often produces substandard content because few ideas that SMEs throw over the wall to marketing are ever developed enough to be seminal, much less different than what already has been said on the topic. Marketing may be left to “put lipstick on the pig,” as they say.
Perhaps knowing that the content isn’t remarkable, marketers don’t commit significant budget to any one piece of content. They’ll do a one-off white paper mailing, a blog post or two, and maybe a webinar. But send an article proposal to a prestigious management journal? Nope. Or publish a book? Out of the question.
The result: clearly communicated – in fact, often fun to read – but ultimately uninspiring content. And the lack of inspirational ideas isn’t the only problem. The absence of concentrated marketing behind that content means it doesn’t spread very far.
Industrial Age: Good at Regularly Creating Buzz but Generating Little Beef
B2B firms in this category are large firms that unquestionably value thought leadership. However, they prefer to capture the expertise that’s already in their experts’ heads rather than cast a wider net of “best practices.” They often supplement their expertise with primary survey research to bring numbers to things they already would like to say about how to solve some business problem. (Example: “Sixty percent of the firms we polled say they don’t have a social media strategy.” OK, but what firms do have effective social media strategies, and what do they have in common? You won’t get useful insights on that from a multiple-choice survey.) Such survey research skims the surface of the issues on which they create content. When you view their studies, papers and conference presentations, you might be stimulated, but not wowed.
The good news is that these firms are proficient at marketing their content – at creating campaigns that draw on multiple tools in the thought leadership marketing mix: blogs, social media discussion groups, white papers, opinion articles in respected trade publications, electronic mailings of survey reports, webinars, conference speeches and more. These companies often throw huge advertising dollars to attract readers to their studies, and they get a lot of clicks. So even if their ideas aren’t breakthrough, they get a lot of air time. But since they lack seminal ideas illustrated with compelling stories of companies achieving great things, their ideas are often forgettable.
Post-Industrial Age: Masters of Generating Big Ideas and Attracting Big Audiences
Companies that have evolved to this stage – and there are very few of them (McKinsey’s Global Institute and occasionally Bain & Company come to mind) – conduct deep primary, best practice-based research. On any subject, they talk to dozens of companies to understand why some are solving a business problem better than others. (These firms often have people whose sole job is to conduct such research.) They rigorously analyze what they’ve heard and don’t let their past client work bound their thinking.
That’s not to say these firms invest in substantial research before they publish anything. In fact, firms like McKinsey and Bain publish numerous pieces that are not based on extensive primary research but instead are based on their professionals’ client experiences. Such companies pick their spots on what topics to, and not to, “go long.” It may turn out that the majority of their content is not research-based. However, some of their content is research based, and the resulting ideas are often show stoppers. In either case, these firms allow their marketers to help them develop their thinking even more. Further, they let their marketers decide how to communicate their ideas (of course, with the usual debates on how to phrase things). And their marketers, emboldened with having breakthrough, substantive ideas to market, go to town with them. They wheel out the full marketing plan. The result: Best-selling books, memorable Harvard Business Review articles, seminars backed with buyers, and bloggers and tweeters and LinkedIn groups singing their praises. These firms are overwhelmed with bona fide leads and new client work.
Information Age: Using New and Old Technologies to Create Breakthrough Ideas That Go Viral
There’s a fifth era now upon us, which we refer to as the Information Age. We do so because the marketing of thought-leading content is rapidly shifting from “offline” to online techniques, the most recent of which are social media.
We’ve written before about how social media is changing the way content is being marketed. Consider the consulting industry, where the practice of thought leadership marketing began. In a 2010 survey of more than 70 consulting firms that we conducted (with BlissPR and the Association of Management Consulting Firms), these firms said that by 2015 two-thirds of their thought leadership marketing budget would go to online channels and only one-third to offline. They told us that in 2005 that ratio was approximately the reverse: 68% of thought leadership marketing dollars went to offline and only 32% to online channels. (We are conducting an update of that consulting industry study this spring with BlissPR and AMCF. We’ll post results in May.)
In addition, we believe social media will change some but not all of the process for developing content – i.e., ways to identify hot topics and gather information on how organizations are wrestling with them. B2B firms that want their thought leadership practices to be in the “Information Age” should aggressively explore ways to use social media and other online technologies to improve the way they develop content including:
- Topic formulation – It’s far easier today to gauge clients’ reaction to a topic your firm is considering. You can create a discussion thread in a group on a public social networking site such as LinkedIn and Facebook. Or you can start a discussion on one of the newer and more focused open forum sites like Quora or Focus.com. These sites allow people to explore issues in a question-and-answer format.
- Participant recruitment – Getting best-practice companies to join in thought leadership R&D is never easy. But it’s essential. We don’t see syndicated research studies (i.e., those that formalize recruitment) or good old-fashioned participant recruiters who man the phones looking for research participants going away soon. But there are other methods for identifying and getting managers to participate. They include public social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook (especially LinkedIn groups where professionals discuss issues of mutual interest) as well as gated online communities.
- Data collection: It used to be that the tools for conducting best-practice research were the good old-fashioned telephone, tape recorder and in-person interview. But technology is beginning to help case study researchers do things better and faster. They include online video chats (which can help build essential trust in interviews). Still, we see nothing replacing one-on-one phone and in-person discussions with managers who have illuminating stories to tell.
Those who can use social media and other online technologies to improve the process of thought leadership R&D can gain significant advantages.
The Thought Leadership Evolutionary Chart
Content Development Capabilities
| Stone Age
| Information Age
|SMEs develop content by capturing project experiences||SMEs allow marketers to capture their ideas but not help develop them||SMEs let marketers conduct quantitative surveys, which produce fact-based but superficial POVs||SMEs and marketers conduct quantitative and quality research, which produce more novel, fact- and story-based POVs||SMEs and marketers supplement traditional thought leadership R&D and marketing activities with social media|
|Marketing Capabilities||SMEs distribute content through their personal channels (e.g., email lists)||Marketers don’t create major campaigns for each POV because content quality is average||Marketers launch campaigns with several activities for each POV||Marketers launch more extensive campaigns for each POV because the content is compelling||Marketers enable ideas to go viral faster because word of mouth travels faster through social media|
|Results||Inconsistent content quality and episodic marketing results in little market reaction||Clear but unexceptional content, with each POV marketed insufficiently, generates some but not great market interest||SMEs’ insights travel widely but don’t generate substantial market interest because they lack novelty and real stories. Many downloads but few phone calls.||SMEs’ insights travel widely and deeply in organizations because they bring big new ideas to market (and proof of effectiveness).
SMEs’ enjoy substantial market interest and leads.
|Firms able to create a stream of big, new and substantiated ideas that create enormous market interest and leads|
Moving Up the Evolutionary Scale
If they wish to leapfrog to the right of our evolutionary chart, firms in the less advanced stages must address several challenges. You might think it’s largely a budget issue – getting the organization to devote much greater resources to thought leadership content development and marketing. It isn’t. A much bigger one may be getting your firm’s subject experts to engage in a more product way in the content development and marketing. They need to be open to getting help in developing their thoughts for publication, and for certain, in communicating them.
The first step is gauging where your firm is on an evolutionary scale like the one we present here. Assess your content development and marketing processes. How do you determine topics, and are those topics on issues of interest to the market and relevant to your services? How do you gather information on those topics? Analyze the data you collect? And then how do you take that content to market? Do you essentially do a “once-and-done” – e.g., a single white paper but nothing more for a single point of view on an issue? If so, that won’t be nearly enough for what it takes for an idea to gain traction in the marketplace. The most successful thought leadership campaigns are based on a mix of marketing activities. They must be carefully planned.
Over the last five years, several large professional firms have asked us to determine whether they were marketing the right content: a) on the topics most appropriate for them (and their clients), b) in sufficient quantity, and c) with sufficient quality. Some also asked us to evaluate their output against that of several competitors. When doing these evaluations, because opinions about content quality can be seen as entirely subjective, we have found it important to set and agree on criteria. While such an evaluation won’t ever be seen as entirely objective, having agreed-upon criteria helps.
Moving up the thought leadership evolutionary curve always requires a mind shift among a firm’s subject experts. If they believe they should control the content development process and “roll their own” content, they need to understand why other approaches can be far more effective.
Getting them to the table, however, may require prompting from the top of your organization. Do the managers running your firm want the organization’s thought leadership capabilities to leap ahead? Do they believe their firm must master thought leadership marketing? Do they see it as a key capability for the present and future? And do they think it might be worth the effort? If so, you must convince them that your subject experts need to engage in a different way in the thought leadership process.
Originally published 04/22/2020