Comprehensive thought leadership consulting for B2B & professional services firms

The Thought Leadership Clients Need Now

Like out of work individuals and families, companies are slashing expenses and paying only for necessities. Will thought leadership campaigns make the cut?

By Bob Buday and Jason Mlicki

As the COVID19 pandemic forces the economy into a free-fall and millions of households shift to survival mode, many companies worried about the future are following suit. Like out of work individuals and families, they are slashing expenses and paying only for necessities. Will thought leadership campaigns make the cut?

They can – but only if your firm can quickly market and deliver unique and battle-tested expertise that addresses your customers’ most acute problems. If your thought leadership campaigns showcase how you can do this, they are far more likely to be embraced by both your customers and by your company’s management (as a way to generate leads and income while opportunities are shrinking).

This is a leap of faith for top management to get behind. It requires a possibly unsettling shift in focus, but it is already being done. In this article, we show how a number of firms are already doing this, ranging from consulting giant McKinsey & Co., to integrated healthcare consulting, architecture, and analytics firm Array Architects, to a Boston law firm, Conn Kavanaugh. We explain how marketing crucial, proven advice to companies that need it badly can help both the companies and their advisers better weather the downturn. And we spell out four strategies that will get you there.

The next two months will be a reckoning for professional services and other B2B firms that compete on the basis of thought leadership. Plenty of hucksters will try to get into the act, peddling unproven remedies to companies with existential fears. Real expertise and real solutions – from people with the gravitas of experience and noble intentions – matter now more than ever. If you are one of those people, this article is for you.

A Staggering Toll

As the pandemic continues into April, the global economic news gets dourer by the day. The toll that the coronavirus already has wrought on human health and psyches is staggering, with worse news certainly ahead. The impact on people’s income and jobs is heart-wrenching. And so are the risks to those on the front lines: healthcare professionals, grocery workers, delivery people and others.

The rapid takedown of multiple industries seems unprecedented. Travel-sector companies such as Marriott (revenue down 75%) and American Airlines (planes just 15% full) are in a deep dive. Nearly half of U.S. hotel jobs could be axed in weeks – some 4 million. U.S. restaurant industry revenue over the next three months will fall $225 billion and employment will drop by a third (5-7 million jobs) if their doors remain largely closed. But even businesses far afield from the travel industry are being decimated. General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler’s North American factories are nearly shut down.

Of course, that means severe budget reductions are coming, if they’re not already in place. Marriott already announcedthat it will slash general and administrative costs by at least $140 million. A PwC survey of 50 chief financial officers on March 11 found that the majority (58%) predicted their companies’ revenue and/or profit would decline this year due to the coronavirus. Not one CFO projected an increase. Nearly two-thirds were considering cost containment measures, and a third were mulling cancelling or deferring planned investments. Sadly, even these pessimistic views may be too optimistic. PwC polled the CFOs on a day when only 1,215 COVID-19 cases in the U.S. had been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two weeks later, there were more than 50 times as many cases.

The signs everywhere show marketers should run for cover – those running the thought leadership programs included. Companies in the crosshairs of the pandemic are already taking drastic measures. For example, Airbnb told employees on March 26 it would stop marketing altogether to reduce its cash outflow, according to tech industry website The Information. That would save the firm $800 million this year.

Thought Leadership Budgets Will Be Scrutinized

CMOs who can’t strongly defend their campaigns to CFOs should be prepared to make sizable cuts. Only firms that bake thought leadership into their strategy – who compete on the basis of thought leadership like the big strategy consultancies do – may be able to keep their hands off the thought leadership budget or, at least, maintain programs with the best chances of having impact (i.e., those with compelling content, as Bob explained in a recent article).

But now’s not the time to panic. Frantic, indiscriminate cost-cutting will blind professional services, software, financial and other B2B marketers of the opportunities their firms have right now to stay vibrant or (in some cases) solvent in the months ahead. They just need to get fast approval to capture and market their tried-and-true remedies to acute customer problems – solutions that can be adopted in weeks.

Yet be advised that a “tried-and-true” remedy doesn’t mean essentially the same advice your firm’s competitors would provide. Your remedies need to be unique, available only from your firm, if it wishes to be heard amid the cacophony. As our colleague Kate Sweetman put it, there’s a big difference between “simply saying something vs. saying something that really moves the needle for someone.”

To be sure, we realize what we’re advocating may sound evident. It is, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to sell internally, for four reasons:

  1. It goes against the instinctive reaction to cut back on all seemingly unessential activities (marketing included)
  2. Managers slide into shock and pessimism, and assume (wrongly) that clients won’t buy anything during these dark times
  3. Service leaders may believe they can’t compress the time frame for a service offering from taking months to implement to delivering real value in weeks
  4. Senior managers may think they’ll be the last to go if times get tough.

Yet we’re seeing thought leadership marketers in several companies do this already. They include consulting industry powerhouse McKinsey; an integrated healthcare consulting, architecture, and analytics firm called Array Architects; and Conn Kavanaugh, a 40-attorney Boston law firm.

With the pandemic threatening their survival, many of your firm’s clients now have no time for advice that will take many months, much less a year or more, to adopt. They need here-and-now answers to their immediate cost, revenue, and other problems. Clients should only listen to solutions that:

  • Those clients can implement in weeks
  • Your firm can deliver effectively in weeks
  • Your firm can deliver virtually to their virtual management team (at least until the travel restrictions are over)

This article provides ideas on how to do what we’ve proposed above. Here are four recommendations:

  1. Convince the people who control your marketing budget to give you funds to pitch expertise crucial to customers in managing the crisis.
  2. Determine the most severe pain point(s) of your firm’s clients – problems your firm can solve quickly (in weeks, not months) and with proven value.
  3. Capture your firm’s expertise rapidly so you can publish it in a few weeks (not months) and begin attracting an audience even before you’ve published it.
  4. Revamp and refine services to find ways to deliver value to clients in weeks, not months (if this is necessary). Scope out the whole set of capabilities that you need to bring to bear to solve the client’s acute problem quickly. Price according to the value it delivers. If it’s too high for the prospect because of short-term cash pressure, consider value-based or stretching out customers’ payments. But your value needs to be far in excess of your fees.

In this article, we will lay out ways to accomplish the first three tasks and high-level thoughts on the fourth (because it’s not in our wheelhouse). We provide a framework for Nos. 1 and 2. (It’s the same framework but used internally first to convince your bosses to invest strategically in thought leadership. The second use of the framework is to determine the hot-button issues of your firm’s clients – issues your firm might be able to address relatively quickly.)

Let’s pause here. If you think this is impossible, stop reading! If you think it’s possible but your firm doesn’t have expertise that a client can put to use in weeks and get results quickly, the rest of this article may not apply to you either (unless your firm can reengineer its service and deliver it, or a valuable piece of it, in 20-30% of the time it’s used to delivering it).

First Step: Selling Thought Leadership as a Must in Your Firm

Before you can embark on the thought leadership program we’re about to describe, you’re going to need to get top management to buy into it – not just from a budget standpoint but also from a service delivery standpoint. That question will be whether they’re prepared to deliver one or more of the firm’s services in a short period of time for a particular client. By that, we mean can your firm generate results for a client – cost reductions, new revenue opportunities, and so on — in excess of its fees in a matter of weeks rather than many months?

The framework below outlines two conversations to have with senior leaders in your firm. In the current economic downturn, what actions could your firm take internally to address key problems (such as low billability, high office costs, late receivables, imminent payables, few leads, and others), and how long would it take to address each of them?

The first conversation is about listing the firm’s problems on the scale of severity (high to low), and on a scale of time to solve (a few weeks or a couple of months vs. many months or more than a year). Take the problem of high office costs. Your firm may have too many unoccupied offices across the country or the world, and it may believe that many employees won’t need to work in them even after the pandemic ends. But to solve this problem, it would most likely take a long time to get out of those office leases. That makes high office costs a severe problem right now, but the resolution time long.

In that upper right box, you might put other big problems that can’t be solved quickly: e.g., high client turnover because of highly uneven service quality, or a poor brand reputation. These problems won’t be fixed fast.

In this framework, the magic quadrant for thought leadership marketing is the upper left box – at least, thought leadership content and marketing that can be done in weeks (not four months or more). The biggest problem right now for many professional services and other B2B firms is a lead stream problem (that river from a month ago has slowed to a trickle), which will soon become a revenue problem. This is a problem that an extremely well-orchestrated, surgically targeted thought leadership campaign can address.

Of course, this isn’t rocket science. But we believe it can help a top management team understand thought leadership not just as perpetual brand building, but (with solid, short-term campaigns) also as a way to get the lead stream going if the firm can rapidly provide substantial value to clients to solve big questions.

Once you have a discussion with top management along the lines above, you’ll gain clarity about whether you can to convince them that thought leadership is one of several moves they should make now. A strategically targeted thought leadership program – focusing on a solution that clients with an acute client pain point can adopt in weeks – could increase the lead stream relatively quickly.

If you get their approval, you’re out of the starting gate. But then the question is this: On what topic should they focus a thought leadership campaign, and promoting what service? That leads to the second step.

Identify Client Biggest Pain Points Your Firm Can Quickly Solve

Here again the crisis focus framework comes into play – but not to show that thought leadership is a key initiative right now for your firm, but rather to identify a key client pain point(s) that your firm can address quickly.

Put your firm’s clients into the same framework and determine which of their problems that your firm could address are in the top left square. If your customers are supply chain executives who oversee a global network of plants in their company, the pain point could be determining how to optimize the network given transportation restrictions and variability of demand. If your clients are CFOs and you’re selling them consulting services or software, it may be determining which corporate initiatives offer both short- and long-term paybacks. Or for the clients of a recruiting firm, it could be alerting them to the surplus of talented people who are about to lose their jobs and showing how to begin identifying and attracting them.

Consulting firms McKinsey, Bain & Co. and Boston Consulting Group have been on top of the crisis with useful content. McKinsey, in particular, has seized upon this with substantial content (more than a dozen articles and surveys) for senior executives on how to manage the crisis. McKinsey has posted articles on a variety of topics including protecting the workforce, stabilizing supply chains, financial stress-testing, leadership practices, ramping up cyber security, managing investors calls, and customer interaction. Additional articles go in-depth on how companies in a range of industries should respond, including banking, health care, higher education, government, fashion, and retailing. The breadth and depth of the coverage is breathtaking. Their content is deep, visually attractive and constantly replenished with new ideas — truly impressive.

But the big strategy firms aren’t alone in bringing thoughtful expertise to bear quickly. Array Architects, a midsized consulting, design and analytics firm, has produced impressive thought leadership as well. On March 16, the firm released a study that explained how the U.S. health care system could quickly increase capacity for intensive care unit beds for coronavirus patients by 21% by using outpatient ambulatory surgery centers. The study, conducted by its Array Analytics subsidiary, pinpointed where the additional capacity would be needed and when — state by state. Acute problem identified; ready solution offered.

Array Architects isn’t done being highly useful during the pandemic. On March 31, it came out with another study that predicted an acute shortage of critical care physicians (more than 7,900 to be more precise) in the U.S. as the virus spreads and doctors are infected. The firm predicts, state by state, how many more doctors will be needed to treat these patients.

This is happening in law firm marketing, too. Conn Kavanaugh has set up a “CK Covid-19 Information Center” on its website, and has published more than a dozen articles in just the last two weeks (e.g., “How Might Covid-19 Affect Your Family Law Case?” and “Small Business Loans Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act”). The firm has also sent emails and social media alerts (LinkedIn and Facebook) to its client and prospect list. The response has been exceptional. “The amount of response from clients – and from non-clients – has been significant,” Kurt Fliegauf, a partner at the firm, told us. The percentage of firm emails opened by recipients has skyrocketed. Social media postings have led to more than 700 clicks to articles on the site. Attorneys are getting replies from nearly every client who has received the alerts.

The goodwill that companies such as McKinsey, Array Architects and Conn Kavanaugh are building through moves such as these are important to increasing brand awareness and affinity in the long-term. And the expertise they are imparting via thought leadership can help bring some old clients back into the fold, and prospects with acute problems much closer in the near-term.

Capture Your Firm’s Expertise Rapidly, and Attract an Audience From Day 1 

If it takes months to create white papers or other substantive articles, that won’t work. To quickly respond to the economic crisis with superb content, you must revamp the way you develop that content.

Specifically, you need to develop a highly persuasive piece of content in four weeks or less (we call this the “foundational point of view”); put up a web page or microsite with content (starting essay, survey to take, etc.) in Week 2 (before your foundational PoV is ready to publish); start driving your audience to that web page in Week 2 through an email and social media campaign; and prepare your salesforce to respond knowledgeably to leads in Week 5 (once you publish your foundational PoV).

This will require the following actions:

Content Development (Creating the Foundational PoV)

This paper will most likely be between 3,000 and 5,000 words and be a deep and compelling treatment of the topic at hand. Use a structured outline template as the tool to get your authors on the same page about the exact short-term problem your firm can address, and how to address it in the short-term. We have used such a template for more than 30 years, and it’s been one of the secret sauces to getting smart people to develop a coherent and compelling point of view.

Appoint a “decider” among the authors. This is the person whose views and edits of the argument will be final. By “argument,” we mean the core logic and supporting evidence reflected in a detailed outline (and not the final prose). Marketing is the best judge of whether the argument is communicated clearly and compellingly. The decider and other authors should defer to marketing’s judgment on how best to phrase things.

Have your subject experts fill in the outline on a site like Google Docs, where everyone can see anyone’s input moment by moment. Mandate strict deadlines to provide input – e.g., 48 hours after the document is posted. Emailing Word docs and asking for input over a one- or two-week time frame won’t be fast enough. Tell everyone not to focus at all on phrasing things elegantly in the outline. Their input merely needs to be understandable. This step in the process is idea development, not idea communication (i.e., writing according to outline).

Require your subject experts to put in “proof points” – examples of their customer accounts in which they have delivered the kind of value that your firm needs to say it has delivered. Without those proof points, your content is not likely to be taken seriously by prospects. This is not a time for them to bet on untried solutions. Have them reach out to those clients to get their approvals on case anecdotes in which they would be featured. Give those clients editorial control over what is said about them.

We also recommend fielding a well-designed survey to collect input from your target audience on the topic at hand. Through that survey, you’ll be able to bring statistics to market showing how companies as a whole are dealing with the issue at hand. Times of crises are moments in which your target audience is hungry for information about how their peers are dealing with common issues.

Now is also the time to launch secondary research (to gather supporting facts, company examples and other necessary evidence of the problem and the solution) concurrently with posting the initial outline. When your secondary research comes in, add it to the appropriate sections off the outline for all to see.

Hold very few internal phone calls or videoconference calls – no more than three, and two is better: one to kick off the project, and one after you’ve worked out the core ideas and logic in a detailed outline and you’re looking for final input before somebody converts the outline into prose.

Turn the first draft of prose over to your writer – or multiple writers (assigning them different sections of the outline). Two writers working off the same detailed outline should, of course, cut the writing time in half. We managed a 60,000-word book project with a half-dozen writers assigned to different chapters. It took five months to produce a solid draft; the consulting firm we worked with had taken the previous two years (and one internal writer) to write less than a third of the book, the result of which had to be scrapped because the thinking wasn’t sufficiently evolved.

Solicit input on the first draft from the authors (give them no more than three days to respond), and send a second version to the “decider.” Get the decider’s input in 48 hours and make the third draft the final one.

Content Presentation

Get your graphic design and production person(s) working on graphs and other art, and an overall visual layout of the paper. Work toward producing both PDF and web page versions of the content.

The web page version will be the go-to destination for your viewers in the ensuing months. It will be where they get all your content on the topic, register for updates, take surveys – and (very importantly) schedule phone calls with your business development people. A registration form should require prospects to fill in enough details to qualify leads. (More on this below.)

Digital Marketing

Set up a web page or microsite with the following pieces: a starting essay (around 1,000 words) on the issue that the page will address over the coming weeks and months; a survey site visitors can take on the issue (so they can see how other companies are collectively thinking about and addressing the issue); a list of content to come and when it will be posted (including the foundational paper you are developing); a form to be alerted when that content and other web page updates are made; and a place to sign up for webinars and video conferences on your topic.

Start a social media campaign to let your target audience know about this web page and that your firm will be examining the topic you’ve chosen. Start the campaign after you’ve posted your starting essay, survey questionnaire, list of content to come, and form to register for updates.

Lead Response and Closing (Sales/Business Development)

Have a form on your web page for prospects to schedule a Web or phone call with your salespeople. To reduce the number of unqualified leads, in the form require these details: name (not just email address), company, title, region of world.

Provide strong bios of the business developers who will talk to prospects so that those prospects see that they’ll be talking to a knowledgeable person.

(If Necessary) Re-focus Your Firm’s Service to Generate Short-Term Value

Just like producing exceptional thought leadership content in 6-8 weeks rather than 6-8 months, the products and services your firm will be marketing in the downturn need to be able to generate value for clients in no more than a few months.

This is not yet an area in which we have expertise, so we will not offer it here, except to suggest what is probably glaringly obvious: look for ways to use a remote work team, online collaboration tools (e.g., Slack, Google Docs, Microsoft Teams), and videoconferences to dramatically pare down the time it takes to complete the work and make decisions. Run the steps that we mention above largely in parallel rather than sequentially.

The Ultimate Marketing Benefit: Faster and Better Thought Leadership

You shouldn’t do this to sell a hastily put-together service or product that won’t be effective in a truncated period of time, or worse yet, doesn’t work at all.

In periods like this, hucksters come out of the woodworks – preying on desperate companies who are looking for miracle cures and thus are easy to fool. We don’t want to have anything to do with these companies.

Now’s the time for your company to brag about its client successes – and get the approval of clients who value its services highly to let you tell their stories. From my experience, many of them will be delighted to be asked.

If you can truly help potential clients turn around their business, or keep it solvent, in the next few months, you need to show them how you can help them survive this crisis. It’s moments like these that make thought leadership marketing a noble profession.

1 thought on “The Thought Leadership Clients Need Now”

  1. Great article, Bob and Jason.

    This takeaway is invaluable to firms: “Clients are searching for answers and are listening to trusted voices.”

    At this time, firms must apply their core capabilities in areas where they have both existing trust AND brand relevance.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: