As a marketer, leading your firm’s thought leadership program may be the most important thing you do, let’s take the time to get it right.
In last month’s article, the #1 Objective of Professional Services Marketing, I put forth the notion that modern firm marketing is simply educating potential clients on issues that matter to them. When you systematically offer learnings, leads and opportunities tend to follow.
But what issues does your firm need to own? Why do you need to own them? And how will you actually do so? Ultimately, a thought leadership strategy answers all those questions (and more). Running a content program without an underlying strategy would be like NASA launching a space mission without an agreed upon destination or scientific objectives. Yet, firms do it all the time. So, let’s fix that.
Over the years, my good friend Bob Buday, of Buday Thought Leadership Partners, and I have partnered in the development of thought leadership strategies for more than a few firms. Along that journey, we’ve settled in on a 6-step process that works:
- Clarify Firm Strategy
- Agree on Ideal Client
- Conduct Qualitative Interviews
- Field Quantitative Research
- Agree on Core Strategy Elements
- Build an Editorial Calendar
Let’s look at each step in the process at a high-level.
#1 – Clarify Firm Strategy
Ultimately, whatever content you produce has to align with your firm’s growth targets. How much does your firm hope to grow in the next 3-5 years? Where do firm leaders expect that growth to come from? Are there particular markets or practices that are growing faster than others? Are there practices that are stagnant or declining? If so, why?
To start, your goal is to get alignment on resource allocation. How much of your thought leadership investment will be made at the firm-level? The industry-level? The practice-level? Which industries or practices are the highest priorities? Why? Firm leaders need to agree on these things before content development programs get too far down the track. For more on this, check out Cash Cows or Rising Stars: Where to Allocate Your Marketing Budget?
#2 – Agree on Ideal Client
The next step is to make sure everyone agrees on who you actually hope to attract to your firm. When asked who they want to do business with, it’s shocking how frequently firm leaders will say, “the C-suite.” Well, the “C-suite” is not homogenous. The challenges, interests and needs of the COO look nothing like those of the CHRO, the CMO, or the CSO. For content to resonate, it needs to speak very clearly to the challenges of a specific person in a specific role often at a specific moment in time.
I’ll cover this more in a future post, but to start I always suggest thinking about this in 3 layers:
- Firmographics — What types of companies do we want to do business with?
- Demographics — What people within those companies?
- Psychographics — What are they thinking or feeling right now about the challenges we solve?
#3 – Conduct Qualitative Interviews
Next, we recommend conducting qualitative one-on-one interviews with senior partners, practice leaders and clients. The goal of these interviews is to hear first-hand what clients are struggling with most and what issues our people are seeing within their client work.
In these interviews, I suggest querying topics such as why clients hire firms like yours at all, the most critical challenges clients have struggled with in the past, how difficult those challenges are for clients, and how difficult they see those challenge being in the future. When talking to clients, don’t be afraid to ask them bluntly what topics would interest them.
#4 – Field Quantitative Research
One of the big problems I see with qualitative research (especially when it’s only internal) is that the sample size is limiting. A partner’s perspective is highly shaped by the client relationships they have. But how many do they really have in a year? 4-5? The same problem holds true when talking to clients. Many of your clients hire you because they share a similar world view as your partners. What if that world view is too narrow? The sample set is just too limiting.
Our preference is to take the findings of qualitative interviews and field a broader quantitative study with prospects, past clients, and people beyond your network. The goal is to test and validate your assumptions. Are those big challenges your clients and partners see truly big challenges? Get some data and find out.
#5 – Agree on Core Strategy Elements
This is really where the rubber hits the road. Essentially, you’re bringing together all your exploration and fact-finding to-date. An effective thought leadership strategy needs to provide four key things:
- Central theme — Think of this like a high-level concept that overlays everything you do. For instance, your firm might say it wants everything to ladder up to sustainability or data-driven decision-making.
- Topics to own — This a bit lower-level and should provide for 15-20 topics that the firm would like to own going forward. These aren’t individual articles. Rather, they’re topics you can dig deep into and build a body of work around. If your central theme was data-driven decision-making, your topic list might include things like building data repositories, ensuring data quality, overcoming data skepticism, or data visualization.
- Production formats — What types of content are you going to produce? Will you conduct original primary research? Will you publish a deep white paper every quarter? An article a month? A podcast? A YouTube interview channel? Drill down to the types of content you’ll produce and who’s responsible for leading each one.
- Quality criteria — Finally, we suggest agreeing on what constitutes quality. While important, I don’t mean spelling and grammar. Rather, you want to describe what is necessary to provide proof of a sound argument (clear problem statements, novel solutions, client examples).
#6 – Build an Editorial Calendar
No strategy is complete unless you build a plan to execute it. Last, but not least, you need to build a calendar that describes who’s going to do what by when. Generally, we recommend building a regular cadence into a content program. It’s not dissimilar from building a workout routine or a practice schedule for a sports team. As a firm, if you commit to producing an article every month or every two weeks, that commitment will increase the likelihood of success for everything that follows.
As a marketer, getting your firm’s content strategy right is one of the most important things you’ll do. Take the time to do the exploration and fact-finding necessary to uncover hidden insights and build a strategy that’s comprehensive and compelling. Once you have agreement on the vision drill down into the detail around who’s going to do what when. Keep the long-view and recognize that leads and opportunities will follow if you stick to the mission—educating clients on issues that matter.