Sometimes even the best thought leadership doesn’t deliver the quantity and quality of leads a firm might hope or expect. This article explains why by introducing the Client/Expert Chasm.
Over the last 7-8 years, one of the phrases you’ve probably heard over and over again from the content marketing community is that your firm needs to “act like a publisher.” Traditional business development programs are becoming less and less effective. In order to open the door to new clients the wisdom was to start self-publishing and let them find you for your expertise rather than the other way around. For firms that have been serious about thought leadership marketing for some time this was not particularly novel. And, as we’ll see later, the refrain itself is inherently flawed. You’re not a publisher nor should you strive to be.
That said, it has created a whole bunch of noise in the client ecosystem. Whereas thought leadership marketing had largely been the domain of management consulting firms for 50-60 years, suddenly organizations of all types and sizes have been jumping into the universe to author new content on anything under the sun. The relative ease of entry (a blog, a list, and some email marketing software) opened the universe for virtually anyone to self-publish on just about anything you can think of. It’s simply much easier for small firms (like ours) to carve out narrow niches (in our case, professional services marketing) than it ever was before.
On top of that, SaaS companies entered the fray with billions of dollars of venture capital money. Many of these companies are unprofitable and have seemingly unlimited marketing budgets. Unlike most professional services firms, their objective is often not profitable growth, but a large pay day via an external sale or an IPO. They pump out content in factories in a drive to acquire users. And, many of them are writing about the very topics that have been the domain of consulting firms for many years. But, given their resources and objectives, they’re able to do it at a volume that’s simply unsustainable for most professional services firms.
Low Entry Costs and Massive Marketing Budgets Have Increased the Noise
Together, the low cost of entry for anyone and the glut of resources available to SaaS companies has changed the marketplace for insights and the dynamics of thought leadership marketing. It has effectively pushed clients to recede even further away from firms that might have proven solutions to their problems. There’s so many firms coming at them from so many different perspectives that it’s suddenly much more difficult for them to discern which perspectives have merit and which do not.
The cost of this content explosion to the thought leadership marketer is that the bar has been considerably raised. It’s simply not good enough for a firm just to present its opinion on how to solve a problem. There are hundreds of other organizations offering competing solutions to that problem. In order to create value for your firm (and your client) the content your firm develops must stand up to a significant level of scrutiny. Bob Buday calls them the Seven Hallmarks of Compelling Intellectual Capital. And, they’re essentially the blueprint for what constitutes high quality content — content that can meaningfully affect the way a client thinks about a problem, separate you from all the other voices in the room, and create sustained demand for your firm.
Yet, even content that stands up to that rigor sometimes doesn’t deliver as well as a firm might like. It presents a compelling point-of-view. It solves the problem in a novel way that is more effective, less expensive or both. And, it presents unassailable proof that the solution has worked for other organizations in the past. Yet, sometimes leads, conversations and revenue simply don’t follow. Or, don’t follow at the pace firms would like or have become accustomed to in the past. Why?
The Client/Expert Chasm
The idea behind “think like a publisher” was to close the gap between your firm’s expertise and your clients’ problems. Your thought leadership would be the connector. It would enable your clients to discern solutions to their most pressing problems (whether they previously knew of your firm or not) while bringing forward your firm’s expertise in a less disarming way. And, for firms that are producing content of high quality, it’s probably doing all those things. But, if it’s not generating the quality and quantity of leads the firm might expect, then it’s likely that they failed to do all the important things that follow. In short, while they’ve successfully connected the problem with their expertise, they’ve failed to connect the potential client with the expert. I’m calling this the Client/Expert Chasm.
A compelling piece of thought leadership has the ability to answer a whole bunch of questions a client might have about a problem. But, it also introduces a whole new set of questions. These questions are about the firm, and they mark a pivotal transition in a client’s buying journey. It’s the moment in time when a client transitions from learning about how to think about or solve a problem to actually vetting a firm that could help them solve it. Sometimes this transition will happen quickly — the client experiences a moment of revelation while reading thought leadership that makes them want to get to an expert quickly. And, sometimes it happens slowly — the client starts to form an impression of a firm after reading lots of topical content over time. Either way, it’s the job of the firm’s marketing team to enable clients to successfully move through this transition with the firm regardless of how it happens.
Yet, all too often firms provide no road signs to help clients navigate this transition. The reasons are probably many, but on the surface I would say the biggest reason is that firms simply don’t take the time to think through what questions the client might be asking themselves next and provide a clear path for them to get those answers. These tend to be questions like:
- Can this firm actually implement the solution they just outlined?
- Have they developed a specific product or service to solve it?
- Have they ever done it before?
- Is there someone at the firm with the expertise needed to do it?
- Do they have specific experience in my industry? My situation? Can I talk to them?
- How and where do I start?
All too often, firms literally create a chasm between the client and the expert by either not providing content that answers these types of questions or not giving clients a clear path to find the answers. Think back on some of the best thought leadership you’ve consumed and think about how frequently you’ve encountered one or many of these issues:
- The article was undated and unauthored. It’s clear that the firm published it, but you have no idea who wrote it or when. Is the thinking still relevant? Is this person even there?
- The article is dated and authored, but there’s no additional information about the person who wrote it. You can click on a filter to see everything that she wrote, but you can’t easily access any additional information about her.
- The thinking is compelling but it doesn’t provide any links to a product or service designed to solve the problem as it was framed. Additionally, you can’t find any reference to a relevant product or service even if you’re willing to take the time to go searching through the website to find it.
- The thought leadership provides contextual examples within the article, but it doesn’t lead you to any relevant case studies showing how this sort of work has been done with other clients.
- You’d like to speak with the expert who produced the thought leadership, but you can’t find a clear path to do so. Every path to a conversation points you to a universal website form that leaves you questioning whether or not your inquiry will ever get routed to someone with the specific knowledge you’re seeking. Going forward feels about as risky as stepping back and walking away.
Every single one of these situations creates separation between the client and the expert. If you pile more than 1-2 together you’ve managed to create a chasm between the two. Thought leadership that should produce suddenly fails to produce leads, conversations or revenue at the level the firm expected.
You’re Not in the Publishing Business
One ugly truth is that you’re not actually in the publishing business. Publishers use content to sell subscriptions and advertising. Generally speaking their only goal is to get people to their site and keep them there. They use all kinds of tools to do that. They interrupt readers directly inside the content with all kinds of related content offers. They create lists that force you to click through multiple pages to get the information you want. They auto load videos to grab your attention. They use pages that you could seemingly scroll forever in the hopes you’ll find something you want to read. They do these things because advertisers measure their worth based on their ability to hold an audience’s attention. Site traffic and bounce rates are huge metrics of their success (or lack thereof). They have to do everything and anything they can to keep you on site. Some of these tactics are worth emulating; others not so much.
But, you’re not selling subscriptions. You’re using thought leadership to sell knowledge, expertise, advice and the people and time needed to implement it. Your clients hire you to solve big complex problems and they often pay 6-, 7-, or 8-figures for you to do so. And, of course, that’s not every single visitor to your site. This changes both the nature and complexity of your marketing task. Your job is not simply to keep everyone that visits your site reading. Your job is to identify the high potential prospects from the sea of visitors to your site while simultaneously transitioning them into the next stages of their buying process. You have to delicately nurture the best potential clients into conversations with your firm’s subject matter experts while simultaneously pushing away clients that simply aren’t the right fit.
Closing the Client/Expert Chasm with Multi-Directional Vetting
In short, you’re trying to accomplish two competing objectives at the same time. You’d like to make it as easy as possible for clients to vet your firm. And, you need to make it as easy as possible for you to vet potential clients. You want to deliver new conversations with new potential clients to your firm’s senior partners. But, you don’t want to waste their time with clients that fail to meet the minimum criteria of what you deem to be to be a viable lead.
These competing objectives often drive firms into choices that broaden the chasm. They purposely keep subject matter experts distant from web visitors for fear of subjecting them to unwanted spam. And, they unknowingly create barriers to good clients successfully hiring them by not purposefully leading them down the path to do so.
The good news is it doesn’t have to be this way. At Profiting From Thought Leadership 2016, I shared our perspective on how to build bridges from thought leadership into your marketing content and your practice. In fact, I shared a best practices user flow that we use with all our clients to increase the likelihood that their clients will make it out of the learning stage and into the vetting stage of buying with their firms.
This year, we’re going to go one step further and show you how to engineer the journey from a single piece of thought leadership into conversations — at scale. We’ll show you how to make it easy for potential clients to vet you while simultaneously making it easier for you to vet them. In the end, we’ll share 7 digital best practices that you can use to help close the chasm between high quality potential clients and your experts. Registration is open for Profiting From Thought Leadership 2017. I hope to see you there.
For years, I’ve heard Bob Buday talk about the role of Bloom Group as idea developers in the thought leadership process. I experienced that first-hand in the development of this article. Thanks for helping me frame my thinking.