Comprehensive thought leadership consulting for B2B & professional services firms

Avoiding Content Chaos: Why You Need a Thought Leadership Strategy

Does a firm-wide thought leadership strategy even matter? Absolutely, particularly if your firm spends heavily on thought leadership and decentralizes content creation and marketing.

For years, companies have launched thought leadership marketing programs without an overall plan guiding their content initiatives. In fact, less than a quarter of companies doing content marketing have a “highly structured content strategy with a formal plan,” according to a 2014 poll of 519 executives by the Economist Intelligence Unit. So apparently three-quarters of companies wing it — not knowing exactly what content they should create, for whom, or how to deliver it.

So does a firm-wide thought leadership strategy even matter? Absolutely, particularly if your firm spends heavily on thought leadership and decentralizes content creation and marketing. A good strategy will help your firm chart a steady course to becoming a recognized expert in its desired domains. It will do so by helping you avoid three consequences of fragmented thought leadership marketing efforts:

  • Content imbalance – too much content created and marketed to generate demand for very small groups within the firm, eating up the overall budget.
  • Highly variable content quality – a wave of poor content released to the market, tarnishing a firm’s brand reputation.
  • Unreliable air cover – budget deciders failing to understand exactly why the firm is investing in thought leadership in the first place (which should be to drive revenue), leaving the entire effort vulnerable.

If you lead a corporate marketing function, you can help your company avoid this. I’ll explain how by diving deeply into each problem and illustrating how seven components of an effective thought leadership strategy will steer you around them.

The Content Imbalance Problem

When support for thought leadership marketing takes off inside a company, the excitement ignites an urge to publish in all corners. But the urge is likely to be uneven, with some business units publishing incessantly (and forever squawking that they don’t have enough resources,) while others publish only sporadically (and never squawking). Sometimes, the most prolific publishers are business units that account for only a small part of the company’s revenue, and that causes trouble. They gobble budget and drown out larger business units that, for whatever reason, can’t get their thought leadership marketing acts together.

That’s why topic focus leads our list of seven components of an effective thought leadership strategy. Topic focus means determining the overarching client problems that a firm wants to “own” in the marketplace, then allocating content development and marketing dollars accordingly. Owning a particular client problem means providing services for the foreseeable future that solve the problem. For example, a key client problem that consulting firms such as McKinsey and Bain own is corporate strategy: CEOs and their management teams’ need to determine which markets in which to play and not to play, with what offerings and what competitive advantages to build. How McKinsey and Bain solve that problem can and does change over time. But what hasn’t changed is their desire to address that fundamental client problem. These firms “own” that problem.

A supply chain consulting firm, for example, may decide its thought leadership programs will focus on client problems in three areas: manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution. Now, if its service revenue is 50/30/20 in those areas, it could decide to allocate thought leadership investments in those practices in similar proportions. Or the firm could decide it wants faster growth in its distribution practice, and give it a bigger piece of the pie. Either way, the firm is making a conscious decision on how to allocate thought leadership resources. Its thought leadership programs are in synch with its service offerings (or to use a favorite term of the consulting industry, they’re in “alignment.”) That’s the second component of an overall thought leadership strategy.

Next, companies need to target the right individuals within the client audience. We often see professional services firms aim too low on the corporate totem poll, targeting managers who influence the hiring decision but aren’t the deciders. That is the second component of thought leadership strategy: determining the target audience.)

Topic focus, service offering alignment, and audience targeting help companies avoid creating content for services they can’t deliver at scale, or at all. As my colleagues have written about in the past here, the professionals in charge of thought leadership marketing at such as FTI Consulting, Deloitte and Booz & Co. (now owned by PwC) carefully consider whether content fits their mix. “We’re creating thought leadership that’s based upon our business expertise,” Craig Muraskin, Deloitte’s managing director of innovation, told us. “It has to line up with what we can do for our clients.”

Examine your content balance to ensure that truly deserving content – compelling points of view on big client problems the firm must own – gets the most marketing attention.

The Content Quality Problem: More is Worse

There’s good news and bad news about the explosion in interest about thought leadership marketing. The good news is that many B2B companies are embracing thought leadership, regarding it as a key piece of the overall marketing mix. The bad news is that too many firms crank out a slew of mediocre and poor content.

A Forrester Research survey last year of B2B marketers across sectors found 87% of companies had a hard time creating engaging content. This is a big problem for many consulting firms. Some 38% of executives who make or influence the decision about which consulting firm to hire view consulting thought leadership content as just adequate or poor, found a 2015 survey by the Association of Management Consulting Firms and Research Now.  Only 26% rated such content as excellent.

That same survey also found that thought leadership content has a big impact on consulting services purchase decisions — if the content is good. In fact, 96% said it was a significant factor in choosing a consulting firm. But when the content is poor, 94% of buyers said it lowers their opinion of a consulting firm. So producing a high volume of poor or mediocre content will backfire.

How can you fight back against low-quality content? In part, by instituting content quality standards, the fourth component of thought leadership strategy. A large professional services firm hired us five years ago to help it define content quality standards for the voluminous flow of content from its worldwide field offices. To establish the standards, they had us interview 100 executives in large companies around the world (some, but not all, of whom were clients of that firm) in depth about what made articles, presentations, books, and other content valuable – or not. Those interviews helped our client set clear standards for content, based on evidence of what clients expect. This evidence silenced internal doubters. Since that time, we have seen the quality of this firm’s content improve significantly.

Establishing quality standards for thought leadership content can sound both arguable and subjective. In the previous case, the client interviews were inarguable. But advocating for quality criteria like the type we use (novelty, validity, practicality and four others) may not be clear-enough guidance for some people. When clients ask us to evaluate their and competitors’ content, we have used a five-point scale, with 5 being best:

  1. Content without any supporting data or examples
  2. Content backed only by secondary research
  3. Content based on original quantitative data (e.g., survey reports)
  4. Content based on original qualitative data (e.g., case studies), with or without original quantitative data
  5. In-depth research based on both original qualitative and quantitative data, with highly novel findings

Such a scale makes subjective assessments objective. As well, if a firm extends such an evaluation to competitors’ content, it can tell that firm how well it’s doing. (Several of our clients over the years have had us do such a comparison.) If the numbers show your firm is trailing its rivals, you and top management should become resolved to institute high-quality content standards across the business.

But instituting quality criteria is not enough. Marketing professionals must help internal experts understand how to develop ideas to the point where they are presentable to the outside world. Some ideas will need secondary research to fill in data gaps; others may need primary research (e.g., a handful of case study interviews with leading companies that can be positioned as “best practice”); and still others may simply require further thinking and development by experts in the firm. This is the fifth element of a good thought leadership strategy: development approach. The approach should suit the content piece.

When marketers can advise their firm’s aspiring thought leaders on how to improve their ideas – and coach them on which content development approach to use – they become much more than gatekeepers to the corporate management journal and events.

Once thought leaders come back with compelling concepts, these same marketers should suggest the optimal marketing approach. What’s the proper mix and staging of internally and externally published articles, webinars, social media outreach and other marketing tools? That mix ensures that ideas take hold in the marketplace. Establishing the right go-to-market approach for content is the sixth component of thought leadership strategy.

Unreliable Air Cover: The Budget Deciders Aren’t All In

Especially when firm leaders are new to thought leadership marketing, they may be skeptical about the ROI. If investments climb quickly without evidence that thought leadership marketing is creating new business, you should expect marketing budget decision-makers to curtail or withdraw funding.

The way to prevent this is to connect your thought leadership strategy to your firm’s business strategy, ideally long before any new content is developed and marketed. Strategy alignment is the seventh element of an effective thought leadership strategy.

Exactly how do you ensure such a connection? Make a rigorous intellectual case about how your thought leadership strategy will help top management execute their business strategy. Compare the techniques of thought leadership marketing to other, more familiar techniques that firms use to attract business and show how they complement (not replace) one another. We believe client-acquisition techniques can be compared on two dimensions: a) the depth of competency a firm can communicate in marketing and business development, and b) whether that competency is communicated to just existing clients or potential new ones.

The traditional way that most professional services firms (and a large number of other B2B firms) market their offerings is communicating “surface” evidence of their expertise. By this, we mean brief communications delivered through advertisements, referral sources (“You really ought to talk to Dave; his consulting firm is deep in supply chain design,”) and other marketing messages that can be developed quickly and easily. To be sure, such communication can be powerful; referrals from trusted sources can open doors quickly. And mass advertising can increase awareness of a firm’s expertise rapidly – at least at the superficial level that an advertising slogan or copy will communicate (such as “Leading Expertise in Reengineering the Supply Chain”).

But superficial communications of a firm’s expertise rarely provide enough evidence today to sway many buyers — especially when other firms increasingly communicate their expertise in more substantive ways. By this, we mean firms that go through the painstaking effort of codifying their expertise and the client impact, communicating it in substantive in-depth articles, conference presentations, white papers, and even books.

Collecting and communicating such deep evidence of expertise is, of course, the role of thought leadership marketing experts. We’re not arguing against developing business with surface evidence of competency, such as using referrals to mine business in existing accounts. What we’re saying is that customers more and more need greater evidence of competency to consider using a firm. If your firm can’t provide that evidence, customers will gravitate to firms that can.

If your CEO, CFO and other leaders believe that future revenue growth requires displaying deep expertise to customers, they are less likely to question the value of investments in thought leadership. They should not question them any more than they would scrutinize salary investments for highly competent business developers who mine referrals. The goal of both salespeople developing business and thought leadership marketers is the same: generating high-quality leads for new business.

However, if executives only expect the soft benefit of “market awareness,” they will have a hard time connecting thought leadership marketing to the all-important goal of revenue generation. Without that connection, they will be lulled into believing their firm can live off its brand reputation (thanks to image marketing), repeat business (thanks to sales people who know how to generate it,) and referrals. In this case, company leadership will likely keep thought leadership marketing efforts on a short leash — and may shut them down entirely.

Across industries and engagements, we see the problems of content imbalance, highly variable content quality, and unreliable air cover affecting many thought leadership programs. In these cases marketers have sold the promise of thought leadership marketing internally and their internal clients have bought into it – at least on an initial, perhaps trial basis. But to take thought leadership marketing to the next level of impact, marketers must conquer these three problems. Otherwise, top management won’t stay the course and all the hard work will not pay off.

Originally published 9/24/2015

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