It sounds semantic, but clarifying your firm’s approach is critical to the success of your long-term marketing investments.
There are people that I follow. I listen to them. Read them. Watch them. Weekly. I look forward to their next drop in my inbox. I know it will be interesting and thought-provoking. At the end of my five minutes, I’ll feel a little bit smarter about something I’m generally interested in. I have trust in the carrier. But I can’t always recall the message. These are thought leaders.
By contrast, there are difficult business issues I’d like to solve. They creep up in my daily business all the time. Or they just drag in the back of my mind as issues we’ve sort of solved, but not well. They’re dragging down our performance. I’d love to find a better way to solve them. Or maybe just a way to solve them. Sometimes they’re big issues I only face once or twice in my life. But when I do, I really need a playbook for what to do. For these problems, I need thought leadership.
Are you developing thought leaders or developing thought leadership? It seems semantic, but your answer to the question will lead you down divergent paths rather quickly. You answer will shape your strategy, investment decisions, and everything that follows. As such, it’s a central question you must answer to build your firm’s marketing engine. So, it’s important to be clear before you jump in.
Thought Leaders – Who They Are. What They Do.
Generally speaking, thought leaders are individuals who are followed for their unique take on the world. That unique take is made up of their specific expertise, life experience, topical timeliness, their personality, and delivery. It all combines to form their world view. Frequently, it’s difficult to specifically explain their POV because you’re generally following them for them as much as you are for any one aspect of their platform or vision. Here are a few examples:
- Scott Galloway – I’m a regular listener and reader of Scott’s through his “Prof G” Podcast and his weekly newsletter. I feel like he keeps me smart about what’s happening in the technology industry, and in private and public capital markets. Though a bit crass and arrogant at times, in general, he makes me feel smarter about brand building and value creation.
- Shelly Palmer – I’ve been a casual reader of his daily newsletter for 3-4 years. Shelly provides clarity on complex technology topics. He demystifies messy topics and makes me feel smarter about things like the decentralized web, the meta verse, and now AI.
- Rand Fishkin – More recently I’ve started enjoying Rand’s weekly, “Five Minute Whiteboard” videos. He keeps me smart about what’s happening in the world of digital marketing. Most importantly, he reminds me of what’s worth paying attention to and what’s best ignored.
I value all these people and their contributions to my world view. But it’s difficult for me to articulate any one thing I’ve learned from any one of them. For regular readers of this blog – we’ve been publishing this now for over a decade – you’ve likely found snippets of their thinking as it’s manifested as part of my own unique take on how to market, grow, and build a professional services firm.
Thought Leadership – What It Is and What It Does.
By contrast, I would argue, that thought leadership serves a slightly different purpose. Thought leadership provides a clear and distinct POV on how to think about and solve an important business problem. More specifically, it helps business leaders find a better way to solve that highly pressing business problem. It provides a clear path to a solution that is more effective, less expensive, faster, or possibly all of the above.
It’s grounded in research and substantiated with the discovery and dissemination of best practices. Sometimes it comes from an individual. But, more frequently it’s developed by a firm to elevate its expertise and create organic growth. Here are a few examples:
- Smart Brevity – This book, authored by the founders of Axios, provides a blueprint for better, more effective daily communications. Their simple framework can be applied to anything from a news story to an email newsletter, or the arc of a podcast episode. Weekly readers of the Rattleback newsletter, Momentum, will recognize the structure of Smart Brevity (If you’re not subscribed … you can do so on the right side of this page). Oh, and they’ve turned the philosophy into a revenue-generating, enterprise-grade software product.
- The JOLT Effect – Matthew Dixon’s recent book, The JOLT Effect, demystifies the sources of indecision in the B2B buying process, and provides a playbook for how to overcome it. The research was based on millions of recorded B2B sales interactions and zeroes in on what the sellers who most effectively overcome indecision do differently. It offers a toolset any business development professional can use to identify and overcome client indecision when they face it. Matt’s firm, DCM Insights, has used it to spawn a variety of consulting and training services.
- The Tercera 30 – The Tercera 30 is an annual research study, funded by growth capital investment firm Tercera, that identifies the most promising software ecosystems for building an IT services firm around. It’s grounded in a wealth of data including such things as revenue growth rate, market capitalization, size and health of the partner ecoysystem. It gives IT services leaders much needed insight they can use to make strategic business decisions. And, it gives Tercera a framework to inform their own investment decisions.
I value all these pieces of thought leadership. They’ve helped me get better at important part of my daily job. Provided a path forward when faced with a familiar problem I see all the time. And helped me bring structure to an industry sector I work with regularly.
Which Approach Makes the Most Sense for Your Firm?
Building thought leaders at your firm will:
- Build the reputation of a few key individuals
- Make them seen as a “go to” resource for topics or concepts
- Impart a fuzzy sense of what they do and how they can help
- Build the reputation of the individual therein building the reputation of the organization
By contrast, developing thought leadership for your firm will:
- Build the expertise of the firm to solve a problem of a specific kind
- Deepen the expertise of the organization
- Spawn “better ways” to solve client problems, which will lead to new products and services
- Build the reputation of the firm, raise demand for its expertise, and generate leads to grow the business
Neither approach is inherently better or worse. Nor are they necessarily mutually exclusive. Your approach may represent a hybrid of the two. Regardless, being clear about the approach your taking will help you set more concrete goals and strategies for your marketing efforts over time.