Validity is the stock in trade of other professions — pharmaceuticals, law, automakers. It must be ours, too. Thought leaders must prove that their prescriptions work.
More than 20 years ago, when I first explained the seven elements of compelling thought leadership content, “validity” was one of them. By validity, I meant that a thought leader must have real-life examples and hard data showing that his or her solution to a complex problem actually worked. (I later added an eighth element of exceptional content – coherence – which is about having illuminating frameworks that simplify a complex problem.)
Validity is the stock in trade of other professions. It must be ours too. Pharmaceutical companies need it to get regulatory approval for new drugs. Lawyers need it to win court cases. Automakers need it to sell cars on the basis of quality (e.g., favorable third-party ratings from JD Power, Consumer Reports and others).
And thought leaders need to prove their solutions actually have worked and, thus, their services are worth buying.
I’ve been saying this since the late 1990s, but it’s especially timely today. The reason is that I’m seeing many thought leadership marketers rushing content to market without convincing proof. Maybe they have been forced to make do with the content their company’s subject experts give them. But content lacking proof won’t serve thought leadership marketers or their companies very well, especially when many clients won’t spend money unless it’s on a sure thing.
Perhaps lack of proof is the main reason that only 15% of the 3,275 executives polled last fall by Edelman and LinkedIn said the thought leadership content they read was very good or excellent. Nearly twice the percentage (28%) said it was mediocre or very poor.
Not enough firms do what McKinsey and others do: back up their prescriptions with examples and statistics. (See this content as one of many examples: a 2015 study that connected more diverse workforces with stronger organizational financial performance. And here’s an example of proof-laden thought leadership from a much smaller strategy firm, Innosight: research on 20 S&P 500 companies that successfully executed a wholesale transformation of their businesses.
Even if your article, presentation, blog post or book is well-written, colorful and highly relevant, that’s good but not enough right now. If you can’t prove the arguments that your content is trying to make, people won’t be interested.
Getting Evidence From Subject Experts
We can all blame our subject experts for not giving us the goods. But that won’t help us establish the proof they need. If aspiring thought leaders can’t provide proof that their advice works, it is up to the thought leadership professional to try to get it.
How do you do that? Over the years, I’ve found three techniques that can be effective:
- For thought leaders who believe they don’t need proof: Turn the tables. Ask them if they’d use a ghostwriter who couldn’t provide evidence of successful work – for example, having worked on a bestselling book or on articles in prestigious publications. If your thought leaders would require such proof (as they should), ask them why they think a potential client wouldn’t believe such proof in their work to be equally important.
- For thought leaders who say their client work is confidential: I don’t doubt that. But I’ve seen many compelling case examples in which both the company’s name and the name of the client in that company are highly disguised. Tweaking some details to preserve client confidentiality is acceptable and effective. Moreover, even if the client wants to lay low, I’ve found that many of their clients will jump at the chance to be featured as a best-practice example in a compelling article by my client. (See this example from my prior Bloom Group work with Tata Consultancy Services, a study on how companies were using Internet of Things technologies.) It’s good PR for their firms – and for them. If they’re given the right to review the article before it’s published – a standard practice — it reduces their risk of saying something they didn’t want to disclose. What’s more, my clients’ clients more often than not want to be mentioned by name for the positive PR. (Here’s one example of how that played out with the TCS study: being featured in a Harvard Business Review) These undisguised case examples are gold; mentioning a company and executives by name give the case example far more credibility in the minds of readers.
- For thought leaders who say their writings don’t reflect past client work but rather introduce new ideas to create demand for new services: I get that. I know service innovation is crucial in B2B companies, whether consulting, law, accounting, financial, architecture, IT services or others. But the most successful new services in B2B firms I’ve seen over the years were based on studying the practices of companies that have been highly successful in achieving some goal. I’m talking about primary research that unearths what the best companies do differently than the rest on some issue. For example, if your firm wants to start advising clients on organizational cloud computing strategy (which might include whether to use one or multiple cloud vendors, for what purposes and for what outcomes), you should try to convince the firm to conduct case study interviews and a quantitative survey to understand companies’ cloud computing strategies of the last decade, and plans for this decade. You’ll likely come up with multiple best-practice examples of companies, some of which will be thrilled to be mentioned as paragons.
If you use these strategies to ask hesitant thought leaders for the proof behind their prescriptions, you might ultimately be surprised by how much proof you get.