What it takes to become the voice in the market on a topic.
I received a really curious question at the conclusion of our recent webinar on demand generation. “How many people does a firm need to do this?” My answer was, of course — just one.
It really just takes one person to step up. To have the courage needed. The leadership required. The willingness to fund. And, the commitment to put in the hard work necessary to discover new and compelling ground. And, create sustained demand for a firm.
Yes, some of the most notable thought leaders came from large practices (Tom Peters is an example). But, others are leaders of relatively small organizations (Gino Wickman) or solo-preneuers (like Simon Sinek, Dan Sullivan or Ram Charan).
That said, regardless of the size of your firm, I would argue the path to sustained demand is a dissectible (if not easily repeatable one). As I see it, there are 5 keys to success:
- Clear and coherent positioning
- A compelling point-of-view
- Select works of high regard.
- A wealth of useful content.
- A systematic approach to guide learners into dialogues.
This article takes a brief look at each key and points you to additional useful resources on each.
#1 – Clear and Coherent Positioning
Ultimately, positioning is about deciding where you will and will not compete. What you will and will not do. Getting positioning right tends to be one of the most difficult challenges most firms face. If you’re a small firm you can position vertically (i.e. management advice for financial services firms). Or, you can position horizontally (organizational design and development). If you’re a larger firm you have the ability to straddle a few more markets and disciplines. But, regardless how big the pie and how you slice it, you have to make some choices.
Generally speaking, the smaller you are the more narrow you have to be. But, you can’t be so narrow that there’s insufficient opportunity to grow your practice. I’ve written at great length about positioning over the years. If I had to sum it all up, I’d suggest effective positioning is about identifying a space broad enough to comfortably grow your firm at the pace you’d like, but narrow enough to enable you to see patterns in your market that more generalist firms cannot. The latter is critical because it’s often the basis for what’s to follow.
Some additional resources on positioning:
- 7 Ways to Determine if Your Positioning Works
- Positioning: Bring More Depth, Less Breadth.
- 3 Proven Ways to Position Your Firm
#2 – A Compelling Point-of-View
Having something new and interesting to say lies at the heart of the demand generation model. Without a compelling point-of-view, nothing else that follows really matters. Anchored in your positioning, your point-of-view represents the unique lens by which you view the market. Well articulated, it attracts potential clients to you. And, pushes others away. In a larger, more diverse firm, a POV generally emanates from each individual practice.
In looking at the most successful POVs in the market, the best ones are “discovered” through research — a tightly bound primary research inquiry into how the best organizations solve a big, hairy, messy problem like the one you’d like to solve for your clients. The key points here are “tightly bound” (why your positioning matters). And, “primary” (it’s foundational and uniquely yours). A mix of quantitative research (to separate the best from the rest) and qualitative research (to find best practices examples) seems to work best.
Some additional resources on developing your firm’s POV:
- Start with Why. The Best or Worst Marketing Decision Your Firm Ever Made.
- Creating Economies of Content: The Power of a Point of View (Bloom Group)
- Fives Steps to a Compelling Point of View (Bloom Group)
#3 – Select Works of High Regard
How you publish the findings of your work are equally as important as the insights within. While self-publishing is critical for reasons described later, getting your thinking placed in venues your clients respect and trust is equally important (or potentially more so). The key is to get your thinking into places that reject more than they accept. This could imply publishing a book, placing articles in HBR or other respected industry journals, or speaking at high profile industry events. Publications and venues like these have the ability to amplify your reach and lend credence to your thinking.
This probably won’t be accomplished by simply flipping an outline over to your PR agency. Many of these publications prefer to hear directly from the subject matter experts themselves. They want to see evidence of the depth of their thinking and the quality of their prose (or ability to speak). Often, it makes sense to partner with an advisor such as Bloom Group in this process. Some additional resources on getting published in the right places:
- How to Take Thought Leadership to Market
- How to Get Your Thought Leadership Published in Harvard Business Review and Forbes (Bloom Group)
#4 – A Wealth of Useful Content
While trusted 3rd party publications and events infer credibility on your thinking and amplify your reach they often just represent the tip of the spear as it relates to presenting your firm’s unique point-of-view. After reading that eloquent article in HBR, a client arriving at your firm’s website should be presented with a wealth of useful content related to the same topic. They should find an inventory of articles that go deeper on the sub-topics of the original thinking. Multimedia and interactive content that enables them to engage with the thinking through different devices and different types of learning. And, they should find a variety of content designed to help them facilitate the buying process — from leadership discussion guides, to best practices examples, and possibly even “how to” guides.
The added benefit of all this content is that it enables your firm to earn credibility with Google. The effect of publishing an article in a prestigious publication is like a Usain Bolt gold medal sprint — it’s read widely in a short period of time. Your self-publishing effort is more like the 4 years of training that led to that sub-10 second moment. It’s that steady diet of content (published at a slow, but methodical clip of 3k+ words / month) that enables you to get found for what you know and rise in Google search results.
Some additional resources on the importance of self-publishing:
- Why Self-Publishing is a Critical Part of Your Thought Leadership Marketing Mix
- It’s Only Quality Content if Google Says It Is
- The Content Marketing Wheel: Drive Your Content Like a Campaign
- 5 Fundamentals of Writing Thought Leadership for the Web
- 6 Steps to SEO Success
- The SEO Webinar
#5 – A Systematic Approach to Guide Learners Into Dialogues
The great missed opportunity in many demand generation efforts is the failure to guide clients through the various stages of their buying process and into a solution they can buy. There are really two parts to accomplishing this.
The first part is ensuring you’re clear on what it is you’d like them to buy at all. All too often, firms present thought leadership that is highly tailored to a unique situation only to present clients with a set of generic and overly broad solutions. The solutions that flow from your thought leadership should be as thoughtfully planned as the thinking within.
The second part of this is ensuring that you guide clients through a clearly defined buying process. Generally speaking, clients need to transition from their learning process into a vetting process before they can initiate a dialogue. It’s your job to shine a light on the way forward. This means planning a path through your website through all the relevant content that enables this to happen. And, using well placed calls-to-action at each point along the way. Some additional resources on this topic:
- The 4 Universal Stages of Buying
- 6 Best Practices for Your Website’s User Flow
- Assigning CTAs to Your Website’s User Flow
The road to becoming a truly influential voice in any market is fraught with twists, turns, hills, valleys and surely plenty of potholes. While the keys to success are clear, that doesn’t mean the likelihood of success is high or even probable. For every Challenger Sale there are 100s of voices on sales training. But, the rewards when discovered are surely worth the price of the effort. And, it only takes one person with the courage to get the ball rolling.