Comprehensive thought leadership consulting for B2B & professional services firms

How Fear of Ghosts Can Keep Your Thought Leaders in the Dark

Authors of many bestselling business books, Harvard Business Review articles and research reports don’t actually write the words. The ideas are theirs, but they leave it to expert communicators to express it compellingly.

After 26 years of watching consultants and other advisers successfully use ghostwriters, I was stunned recently to hear a professional services marketer who didn’t believe in the practice.

It happened at a March 27 Association of Management Consulting Firms seminar in Boston, a gathering of about 30 people on a topic dear to everyone’s heart: the evolution of online publishing in consulting. In the morning, I presented the results of a new study that we conducted with AMCF on consulting firms’ online publishing practices. (You can read that study report here.)

Our survey of 50 consulting firms found that only 33% of the average consultancy’s online content last year was ghostwritten; consultants wrote 67% of the content themselves. However, consulting firms whose online articles generated more than 40 inquiries from prospective clients last year had a much larger percentage of ghostwritten content (49%) than consulting firms that generated only 0-20 leads (22%).

Ghostwriting can be good for two reasons: most consultants and other professionals can’t write at the level of a professional writer, and most don’t have the time to write. They are paid to sell and/or deliver expertise to clients.

But in an afternoon breakout session, an anti-ghostwriter sentiment emerged. One participant in a group I led said he didn’t believe in ghostwriters. The subjects are too complex for a non-expert to capture, and most do a poor job, he opined.

“Interesting,” I thought to myself, as I facilitated the breakout discussion, thinking about my experiences, which argue to the contrary. And then “Wow, really?”

I didn’t utter those words to my group of nine. But I thought of mentioning to them – blurting out, actually — that the authors of many bestselling business books don’t actually write the words; the ideas are theirs, but the way they are communicated isn’t. Same with many Harvard Business Review articles, research reports and other prose that tries to prove the authors have unique expertise on an issue.

But then I remembered the statistics from our study: 67% of consulting firms’ content is not ghostwritten; 34% of consultants are not at all or only slightly comfortable with using ghostwriters; and 23% are “somewhat comfortable.” A minority of consultants (43%) embraces ghostwriters. (The participants in the morning session were surprised by this.)

All to say that this marketer’s opinion may be more common than I had realized, although it didn’t seem to be the prevailing opinion of the seminar participants.

So instead of pushing back, I asked the group whether they used ghostwriters, and, if so, whether they were successful. The answer was yes to the first question, although another participant (an editor at a large consulting firm) said his colleagues don’t call themselves ghostwriters. (A great point. I also believe the term doesn’t capture what the best at this profession do. I have written about this before, which you can read here. Ghostwriters who focus on making something readable provide a necessary but insufficient skill. Those who also help the expert develop his thinking provide far more value.)

My group’s answers to the second question – what makes some ghostwriters successful? — included knowledge of the subject matter and the use of outlines to help the subject expert structure her ideas before penning prose.

But given that in the consulting firms we surveyed, ghostwriters produced an average 30% of their online articles, the gentleman in my breakout session is obviously not alone. His opinion and the survey we conducted remind me that there is still lots of skepticism about a practice I thought had gone mainstream.

Now I realize why so many B2B firms struggle to become recognized as thought leaders: They don’t realize their experts need help in developing and communicating compelling ideas. Or if they do, their experts reject it.

Originally published 03/30/13

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