The process for developing a professional service firm’s thought leadership strategy is fairly straight forward. Overcoming the tensions inside the firm to get agreement on the strategy? Not so much.
Frequently a firm’s thought leadership strategy is a direct reflection of its current business reality. A consulting firm that has historically found its success working with CIOs in large retail organizations on ERP implementations is largely predisposed to over-index its thought leadership investments within that unique intersection. In a lot of ways that makes sense. In other ways, not so much.
How well positioned would that firm be if the CIOs’ authority in those organizations started to give way to a new, emerging CDO? What about as those same retailers began shifting away from on-premises technology to cloud solutions to enable omni-channel commerce? Or, as those same traditional retailers began to cede market share to Amazon and other non-traditional competitors?
A firm’s thought leadership strategy can’t just mirror the current business reality. It has to illuminate the path forward for the organization as well. This present/future divide is one of 5 tensions that firm marketers must manage when developing and implementing an effective thought leadership strategy:
- Today’s vs. Tomorrow’s Revenue
- Products/Services vs. Wants/Needs
- Existing Customers vs. New Customers
- Codifying Expertise vs. Discovering New Solutions
- Speed vs. Quality
#1 – Today’s vs. Tomorrow’s Revenue
The first, and biggest tension in most firms, is the need to align thought leadership resources against the firm’s revenue mix. Should the firm invest more resources in practices or services that drive the most revenue today — the “cash cows?” Or, should it invest more resources towards growth opportunities, where it hopes revenue will come from in the future — the “emerging stars?”
Some of those “cash cows” may already be at their peak in terms of profitability and headed down the path towards commoditization. Further investments there may lengthen that path a bit, but not stave it off entirely.
Simultaneously, picking tomorrow’s winners isn’t easy. And firm leaders get frustrated when they see large marketing investments going to nascent practices. But, you can’t afford to ignore those practices either. When a firm over-indexes on today’s revenue drivers, it’s effectively starving or shutting off its future revenue potential. It’s potentially stunting its growth.
While the answer is different in every firm, managing through the tension requires having open conversations about where each service is in its lifecycle and making sure investments are made with “eyes wide open.”
#2 – Products/Services vs. Wants/Needs
There is, of course, meaningful pressure in a firm for marketing to assist in driving sales for the firm’s products and services. Ultimately, the central objective for marketing in most B2B companies has become generating leads for the firm’s products and services.
But a firm-centric mindset for marketing rarely works best. In fact, our past research has shown that when firms focus first and foremost on their needs (generating more leads) their programs tend to underperform. The most successful firms bring a different mindset — an intense focus on the client. They “fall in love with their clients’ problems” and put themselves on an extended quest to educate their clients on issues that matter to them most.
This intense focus on customer wants and needs brings forth more useful, more valuable insights that clients can apply to their business.
#3 – Existing Customers vs New Customers
Assuming a firm brings a truly client-centric approach to their thought leadership programs, where should the focus go? Should the firm focus on deepening existing client relationships or opening doors to new ones?
While the marketer in me always leans to the side of new customers, the highest probability path to near-term revenue gains is always existing customers. A strong case can easily be made to invest more thought leadership resources towards deepening and expanding existing client relationships.
A few years back we worked closely with Knowledge Architecture, a B2B SaaS firm that provides corporate Intranets for A/E firms. We developed a content series focused exclusively on how their clients built knowledge management teams, managed information, and activated knowledge sharing in their organizations. The thought leadership became the basis for how the firm on-boarded new clients and delivered customer success. The CEO recognized that the more successful implementations they had, the stickier their product would be, and an increase in customer referrals would follow.
It’s also important to remember that sometimes a firm’s future customers look quite different than their existing ones. Developing a clear understanding of your ideal client can help bridge that gap.
#4 – Codifying Expertise vs Discovering New SOLUTIONS
There seems to be a prevailing belief that the thought leadership investment a firm makes is about codifying or perhaps expanding the visibility of a firm’s expertise.
But, again, this largely assumes a very firm-centric approach to the situation. In order for a firm to codify or elevate expertise that expertise has to already exist within the organization. But some of the most powerful thought leadership is about discovering new ways of solving a pressing business problem; often those problems are thorny, ambiguous, or undefined. Solving them may require whole new skills the firm hasn’t even fully identified or understood yet.
At least some portion of the thought leadership investment has to go towards “clean slate” exercises. This looks less like codifying the expertise of a consultant and more like researching new and better ways to solve some of your clients’ most pressing problems. Often, solutions to these problems are found only on the periphery or even outside the firm’s client work all together.
#5 – Speed vs Quality
This is probably the simplest of the 5 tensions. Forces of all types are pressuring B2B marketing and thought leadership teams to move faster than ever before.
There are, of course, competitive pressures — when I interviewed editorial leaders in tier 1 firms in the Summer of 2020, every one of them told me that they had published more in the first 3 months of the pandemic than they had in the previous 3 years.
There are also marketplace pressures. In order for a firm to be seen as a thought leader, a firm needs to be found for the issues it hopes to own. Search is much more important now than it’s ever been before. Getting found requires a steady drum beat of high quality content. That drum beat puts the firm under intense pressure to move faster today than it did yesterday. And move faster tomorrow than it did today.
Finally, moving faster is just the reality of the modern, information economy. While there’s some research that says otherwise, conventional wisdom is largely that business is just moving faster today than it did in the past. Companies are falling off the Fortune 500 faster than they ever have before. Companies simply need thought leadership teams to move faster to uncover new insights, identify unmet client wants and needs, and find new solution sets. The thought leadership unit is essentially the R&D of the firm, and the firm needs it to move faster to discover new sources of unmet client needs such that it can bring new, and better, solutions to bear.
Unfortunately, all three of these pressures tend to operate counter to what clients value most in thought leadership — content that brings evidence that the solution to a problem has worked, that demonstrates depth in knowledge about the problem, and provides them with a feasible path to implementation. Getting all these things right and bringing them to market requires time.
The mistake most firms make is assuming that each tension is like a switch — it’s one or the other. We’re either producing content quickly or with quality. We’re either focused on tomorrow’s revenue or today’s. Thought leadership is only for attracting new clients not helping existing ones.
In reality, the answer for most any firm is more nuanced than that. I prefer to think about it like a set of dials that can be spun up or down to varying degrees along each dimension. Maybe 55% of resources are focused on emerging practices and tomorrow’s revenue with the balance going to support today’s “cash cows?” Simultaneously, perhaps 25% of the energy goes to supporting existing client relationships with the balance invested towards attracting new ones. Allocating resources across these dimensions doesn’t have to go in lock-step.
I’ll talk more about how to manage these tensions on November 2 at our 2022 Profiting from Thought Leadership Conference. Also, I’ll conduct a live interview with Raju Narisetti, Leader of Global Publishing at McKinsey and Michelle Swan, Partner at Tercera, a growth equity firm, on how their organizations manage through these tensions and set strategy.
Register today to secure the best possible pricing and to secure a room while there’s still space available in the hotel room block.