Looking Back (and Ahead) on 30 Years in Thought Leadership Marketing

What’s changed the most: widespread use, competition for mind share, and the ascendance of R&D and new distribution channels.

This June I celebrated my 30th year in thought leadership marketing. I didn’t know that was the name of this field I had entered back in 1987, when I left the world of business journalism to run publications and public relations for a management consulting firm called Index Group (and later CSC Index after it was acquired). No one was using the term “thought leadership marketing” back then; the label would come later. Index would set the business world on fire three years later by ushering in a blockbuster operations improvement technique called business reengineering.

I was the luckiest thought leadership marketer alive back then. My marketing colleagues at CSC Index and I were handed a concept that we got on the cover of Fortune magazine, turned into a mega-best-selling book, and made a household word that even Dilbert used (derisively, of course!). CSC Index grew from $40 million to $200+ million in revenue between the year I started there and 1995, largely from reengineering services. And the reengineering consulting market worldwide zoomed to a $5 billion-a-year industry by the mid-1990s, according to Gartner.

I worked in thought leadership marketing at CSC Index for 10 years, until 1997, and then left to co-launch Bloom Group, bringing what I learned to other organizations. By far, most of these were management consulting firms, until the last few years. Now we have clinical research organizations, architecture firms, hospitality companies, and many other non-consultants as our clients.

Since then, much has changed in this field. I think it’s worth pondering because the evolution of the practice helps to think how it might evolve in the next few years. The most important changes I’ve seen fall into four categories:

  • Thought leadership marketing has spread rapidly across sectors
  • There’s an intensifying competition for mind share
  • Thought leadership R&D – the engine of big insights — has evolved (but not fast enough)
  • Content distribution channels have undergone a metamorphosis

Let’s explore each one.

Thought Leadership Marketing Has Spread Far Beyond Consulting

Back in 1987, we didn’t call what we were doing at Index Group “thought leadership marketing.” In fact, we weren’t exactly sure what to call it. We only knew the firm’s CEO and CMO realized they wanted the firm to do it – to get its consultants’ expertise out to the market in the form of regular publications, speeches at external conferences, running their own conferences, being quoted in press articles, launching research studies and publishing books.

Since then, thought leadership marketing has become a widely recognized term for what we do (thankfully). When there’s a common term for a discipline or profession, those in the profession can more easily learn from one another. So thought leadership marketing is the term that has stuck (as 4.8 million Google “results” show). We suspect that all the publishing that Bloom Group has done on the topic for the last 20 years has helped make that term stick.

However, when I started my career in thought leadership marketing 30 years ago, the only sector that seemed to be serious about it was management consulting and, to a lesser degree, training & development firms. Other professional services sectors were dabbling in it – law firms, accounting firms, and so on – and some were doing nothing. Law and accounting firms that dabbled focused on publishing regulatory updates, but little more.

Fast forward to the present and you’ll find many sectors are embracing thought leadership. And it’s not just other professional services firms besides consultancies. An analysis we did last year of people on LinkedIn with the term “thought leadership” in their job titles or job descriptions (219 in all) found that people in consulting, training and IT services firms were now only one quarter of the total with that role. Some 20% worked in the IT sector (software, hardware, online services), and another 20% were from financial services.

How accurate a proxy this is of how much thought leadership marketing these sectors are doing is a different question. But we assume that having job responsibilities in thought leadership means something is going on.

I expect the practice of thought leadership marketing to continue spreading to other B2B sectors – especially in the most competitive ones whose overall growth is lagging, where increasing revenue means taking it from the competition. (I think legal, architecture, IT services, and advertising firms especially fit this bill.) Once firms that are dabbling in thought leadership marketing get good at creating, marketing and tracking the revenue impact of their content, spending on this type of marketing is bound to take off.

The net of it for your firm it that it will have a much bigger challenge in using thought leadership marketing to gain executive attention than it does today. And remember that each B2B sector competes with other sectors for executives’ share of mind, not just with companies in their own sector.

But, of course, this is great news for thought leadership marketers. They’ll have many sectors in which they can ply their trade.

More Competition for Mind Share Increases the Ante for Compelling Content

With so many companies in multiple sectors producing large volumes of content, it’s now very hard to stand out from the crowd. Consumers of thought leadership content on many topics have moved from a desert to an oasis in the last 30 years. I remember back when you had to go to a library to gather articles written on any topic. That could take hours or days, and a librarian to boot. Today you simply type into Google and get what you need.

That’s a big shift. It means more competition for mind share on every topic. In this noisy marketplace, organizations that publish articles, research reports, white papers or books that lack fundamentally new and important insights won’t be heard.

More than a year ago, I blogged about how to be noticed in an ever-crowded market for advice. As I wrote, it comes down to: a) choosing only topics on which a firm has unique and compelling expertise, b) raising, and enforcing, content quality standards, c) digging deeper for evidence to support one’s advice, d) getting better at recognizing patterns in research data and client experiences (patterns showing why some companies generated much greater results than others), e) spending more time to come up with memorable phrases and labels, and f) working much harder and more inventively to spread your best content (especially through social media).

The Slow Evolution of Thought Leadership Research & Development

The research that began about 30 years ago which led to the blockbuster consulting service of business reengineering was done largely without the benefit of information technology. Data collection (telephone and in-person interviews with dozens of companies on the topic at hand), data analysis (convening the research team in the same room to figure out what the data meant), and presenting the results to research sponsors (printed research reports and articles, seminar presentations, and videotapes) were largely accomplished in “offline” channels.

In the late 1980s, we didn’t have affordable web collaboration systems. Email systems weren’t connected across many companies. Webinars were not invented because the web wasn’t there yet. Secondary research was done in libraries, and usually by librarians. Of course, that’s a far cry from how thought leadership R&D is conducted today. Just consider how four phases of research can be done much differently now:

  1. Research design: Through email and web collaboration tools (e.g., Google Docs), researchers can ask multiple people inside an organization to rapidly weigh in on a study’s topic focus and initial hypotheses. And we can, and should ask, clients to weigh in. And why not? They are the eventual audience for a study. Having diverse input on what issues to explore (and not explore), and on what is expected to be found, can sharpen a study’s focus (if you can converge those divergent views). As important, diverse input into research design can generate greater internal interest in the research, which you’ll need if you want your firm’s experts to willingly take the findings to market. But we see this rarely done, especially when companies bring in a research company to conduct a study for them and share their brand on the report.
  2. Data collection: Phone and in-person interviews with case study subjects are still important. However, online surveys (to generate quantitative data) are far easier to conduct today than they were 30 years ago. More important, it’s so much easier to identify candidates for case study research because so many more companies are revealing online so much more about how they operate. Yet too few B2B companies that we know actually do this. You can scout for best practices by using search engines to find conference speeches on YouTube, Vimeo and other sites; conference slides at places like SlideShare; blog posts (on and off their companies’ websites); top management team discussions of the business (on archived transcripts of analyst meetings); and so forth. Artificial intelligence software is being used more and more by firms such as this one for this purpose: combing the vast information banks of the web to identify trend data and case examples of companies doing interesting things. For thought leadership researchers who know how to comb the web for best practices, this data is there for the taking. At our November event, I discussed how we found numerous best practice case studies through extensive online research – leading companies at the topic at hand. Their stories became crucial elements in our clients’ research reports.
  3. Data analysis: Combing the web for best-practice case study candidates is a crucial thought leadership R&D practice today, one that too few B2B firms take advantage of. Using spreadsheets to crunch quantitative data and identify the key differences between organizations with the greatest and least success at the topic at hand is a tool that wasn’t in many researchers’ hands 30 years ago. Neither was the ability to assemble a geographically dispersed research team together through Web collaboration software (including online videoconferencing) and email — all to figure out what the data meant.
  4. Results presentation: Paper research reports have given way to online research websites that present data in words, video and interactive graphics. It’s akin to the difference between the silent movies of the early 1900s to viewing today’s color movies in 3D. And when research results are presented online, that opens the door for interactive graphics – charts and graphs that viewers can play with. Yet not enough thought leadership marketers are doing this. Quantitative survey data is the fuel for data visualization technology – the software and graphic design expertise that can turn once boring graphs and charts into interactive tools that let viewers tailor the data to their interests, as my colleague Bill Shander of Beehive Media has written.

Big, new insights should be the goal for every firm that conducts thought leadership research — not merely confirming the firm’s existing beliefs and practices.

The Metamorphosis of Content Distribution Channels

Yet even compelling content is not enough to get you the audience you deserve. Unless it gets in the larger-than-ever reading queues of your audience, compelling insights won’t matter. There’s just too much content competition on so many topics today.

I devoted an entire presentation this month at our 2nd annual conference on thought leadership marketing to the optimal marketing mix for thought leadership content, whether in-depth research reports, books, substantive white papers or another format. I explained how our clients and other firms have figured out how to use online and offline channels (both separately and together), and both their own channels and those of reputable third parties (management publications, conference organizers, etc.), to gain a widespread following of their ideas.

One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in 30 years of thought leadership marketing is the rise of DIY – do-it-yourself thought leadership. Once alone in the marketplace, other firms have followed McKinsey’s lead with substantive thought leadership publications. There’s also been a significant rise in self-published books and self-organized conferences – and to a lesser extent, self-organized online communities where clients and prospects and the community host can kick around issues.

Another huge change has been using social media to make great ideas rapidly go viral. Thirty years ago, you mailed an article or presented to a conference audience, and then hoped word of mouth would kick. That could take months. You couldn’t make that article or presentation go viral quickly around the world – unless it appeared in a publication with a big and influential audience.

Of course, it’s much different today. Serious thought leadership marketers we know are taking inventive approaches to using Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and other social sites to get the audience to engage with their content. Those social marketers have also learned they must engage with the audience that responds to that content – to retweet or respond to a tweet, or reply to a LinkedIn comment. Social media has become a key tool in the thought leadership marketers’ tool chest.

My colleague at Rattleback, Jason Mlicki, explained at our conference how the thought leadership sections of the websites of professional services and other B2B firms must change if the goal of thought leadership is to rapidly boost leads and revenue. Your own website is a key distribution channel for your content, and it will only be more so in the future because it’s a channel you can fully control. (That’s not the case with media company websites on which you publish articles, or conferences run by others.) As Jason provocatively laid out in his recently published article, thought leadership marketers need to structure their firms’ websites so they allow viewers to fully vet the expertise of your firm – and for your firm to deeply vet the viewers who embrace your content and ask for meetings. This is a very exciting opportunity for thought leadership marketers, because it will help them achieve the Holy Grail of thought leadership: being able to tie their work to revenue and leads.

*      *      *

These are four of the biggest changes I’ve seen over 30 years in thought leadership marketing. While much has stayed the same – namely, the need for great content – competition for mind share, research approaches and marketing techniques have changed, often dramatically.

Those who want to raise their game at thought leadership must continually get better at developing content and getting it into the hands of the right audience. The online and other tools we have today, and will have tomorrow, will make this an exciting and dynamic pursuit.

Originally published 10/07/2017

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