The sheer volume of content—books, white papers, articles, case studies, and the like—published by professional services firms is staggering. Every year thousands of such documents hit the market, all vying for the attention of busy executives and attempting to demonstrate the issuer’s unique and valuable expertise on important business challenges—or, in other words, thought leadership.
To rise above the noise, firms must publish content that is not only of the highest quality, but that also focuses on topics that are highly relevant to target executives. In this paper, we explore an assessment-based approach that can help a firm identify the issues most critical to their target audience, uncover aspects of those issues insufficiently covered by competitors, and develop content that showcases the firm’s most relevant and differentiated experience and insights.
Deriving Greater Value from Thought Leadership Investments
For years, leading firms have relied upon thought leadership marketing to play a central role in their pursuit of growth. Through points of view, research studies, case studies, and other forms of content, professional services firms strive to demonstrate their deep and unique insights on the nature of and solution to pressing business problems.
The recent recession only has heightened the importance of high-quality thought leadership marketing programs to helping services firms grow. Executives leading companies in the wake of the recession are still being very cautious with their money and, thus, when they do spend, they choose professional services firms that are “safe bets”: those with demonstrated expertise in the areas about which they are most concerned. In other cases, companies that are still struggling to gain a solid footing in a time of weaker demand are literally betting the existence of the company on their choice of a consulting firm to help them. In such a case, they’re going with the experts.
Consulting firms, of course, aren’t immune from the effects of economic conditions. Many have tightened their marketing budgets considerably, which makes it even more vital that their thought leadership spending results in materials of the highest quality. Yet they’re not always succeeding. As Gartner observed, “Thought leadership marketing can be a powerful tool for improved marketing success…But because it can account for as much as 20 percent of the service marketing budget, much of it may be wasted.”[i]
One way firms can minimize such waste is by being more strategic about where they place their thought leadership marketing bets. The key is to publish novel and compelling content that addresses target executives’ most pressing business challenges and capitalizes on inherent strengths or expertise the firm possesses. This can mean either covering issues that are relevant to target executives but for which there is a lack of published content, or finding new insights or angles on already well-covered topics.
Consider, for example, a firm that has substantial expertise on how companies can enter emerging markets successfully, and that wants to publish a major study on the topic. The firm is rightly concerned the topic is not only a popular one, but a broad one as well. Thus the first question the firm should ask is, “Which aspect of this topic should our research study target?” A quick review of content published by competing firms would show that many companies, academics and general business newspapers already have published numerous pieces on the general topic of entering emerging markets. Thus, the firm would need an innovative angle to gain attention for its proposed study and avoid revisiting the same issues other publications have covered. Such an angle would help the firm avoid wasting money on the study and squandering an opportunity to differentiate its thinking and expertise from competitors.
A firm facing such a situation could benefit from what Alterra Group calls a “thought leadership assessment.” In our experience, such an assessment can be a valuable tool for services firms wanting to ensure they are concentrating their thought leadership marketing resources on topics and publications that will be the most likely to provide a strong return on investment—in the form of a higher number of sales leads, deeper conversations with prospects and, ultimately, more sold work.
While a thought leadership assessment can take a variety of forms, it typically has three critical steps: identifying a list of “top issues” the firm’s clients are grappling with; narrowing that list down to a few the firm could focus on (given its expertise and the revenue potential of the topic); and assessing how well these topics have been covered by competitors and other thought leaders (Figure 1).
Identify top business issues
Nothing makes a marketing piece fail like irrelevance. If it doesn’t address an inherent client or prospect need, it will be quickly ignored. Thus, the first step of a thought leadership assessment is designed to help a firm identify the most important business issues in the minds of the firm’s clients and prospects and thereby ensure the firm’s content will be relevant to these targets. The challenge is doing this as rapidly and cost-effectively as possible while achieving accurate results. Professional services executives—especially those on the client “front lines”—have a good understanding of which business issues are most important to their clients. However, their understanding can be biased and limited, especially if they spend most of their time with a single company. Therefore, it can be valuable to validate consulting executives’ viewpoints with some form of research.
Because it can be tailored to a given company’s target executives and areas of focus, dedicated primary research often delivers the most usable insights. For instance, one Alterra Group client annually conducts a comprehensive survey of clients on their biggest challenges, concerns and goals. The results of this survey help the firm set its strategies for the coming year and guides its practices on which services they should develop or focus their time on. By extension, the survey also provides guidance for the topics on which the firm should publish.
However, conducting such research can be both time-consuming and expensive and, particularly for smaller firms, may consume an inordinate amount of marketing’s budget and time. In such cases, a good alternative is to perform a meta-analysis of studies, articles, and even conference proceedings published by leading authorities in relevant vertical segments and functional areas. These authorities can be publications, associations, or scholars. The key is to gather a large volume of high-quality research focused on the top business issues relevant to the executives who are being targeted, and then synthesizing that research together into a “master list” of top issues for each segment or functional area.
The biggest challenge at this stage of a thought leadership assessment typically is scope. To avoid “boiling the ocean” in what is necessarily a broad research effort, a firm should impose clear boundaries on the historical timeframe of the content being evaluated and the number and nature of sources that will be studied.
Choose issues on which to focus
The next major step of a thought leadership assessment is to identify the specific issues on which the firm should develop intellectual capital. Scope also is a central theme in this subsequent phase of the assessment. The initial phase of the project typically will result in a long list of business issues for consideration. Even for a firm with substantial resources, such a list generally contains far too many topics to cover in a meaningful (and cost-effective) way. Thus, firms must carefully choose the issues they address to ensure they generate the biggest returns on their thought leadership investments. What drives these decisions? The answer is expertise.
The right issues on which to focus are those for which the firm’s most substantial expertise overlaps with the issues most important to target buyers (Figure 2). There are a number of ways to arrive at this narrower list of topics. For some firms, a half-day session involving lead consultants and subject matter experts can suffice. For others, it’s necessary to conduct a brief survey of firm experts. Other helpful inputs can include such things as recent sales histories (which show the areas in which the firm has sold work most successfully) and current business plans (which should reflect the areas of greatest potential for the firm).
Assess quality and volume
The final step in the assessment process involves understanding two critical points: the quality and quantity of the content the firm itself has developed and marketed in the past 12 months, as well as the quality and quantity of the content published by the firm’s major competitors on the topics chosen in the second phase of the assessment.
Such an understanding will serve two purposes. First, it will enable the firm to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses in its current content, and adjust its future content development efforts accordingly. Second, it illustrates the extent of the competition in the areas recommended for future content development—clearly showing which competitors are producing high-quality, mediocre and poor content on those topics. In doing so, a firm uncovers the “white space” in those areas—i.e., those aspects of the recommended topics that are not adequately being addressed by competitors and, thus, provide the opportunity to say something new and compelling.