In this post, originally published in 2019 and updated in 2022, we look at the 6 primary objectives for thought leadership marketing, offer strategies to achieve them, recommend metrics to measure your progress, and provide a downloadable spreadsheet you can use to track your efforts.
What does success, when it comes to thought leadership marketing, look like? The reality is that success looks different in every firm. Success is a function of the objectives we define and the strategies we implement to realize them. And, of course, what we measure and how we feel about our performance against those metrics lies downstream from there.
Unfortunately, in my experience, most firms haven’t entirely pinned down the answers to these questions. Yes, they have a fuzzy idea of what they’re hoping to gain. More leads? Check. New projects? Check. More revenue? Check. But they’re not specific enough. And this lack of specificity about objectives and metrics leaves them wondering if what they’re doing is really working.
As I see it, there are 6 primary objectives a firm can have for their thought leadership marketing:
- Discover new products and services.
- Create visibility and credibility for a practice.
- Attract prospective clients we don’t know.
- Open doors with prospective clients we do know.
- Turn existing prospects into clients.
- Deepen existing client relationships.
Let’s look at each.
#1 – Discover New Products and Services
My good friend, Bob Buday, likes to say that thought leadership for a professional services firm is like R&D for an automotive company. It’s the lifeblood of the firm. The very future of the business depends on its ability to identify where markets are going and shape a defining point of view on the prevailing issues of our time. Generally, this requires learning beyond the walls of the practice and its existing client relationships. It requires making investments in original primary research — exploring new ways of solving existing problems and identifying adjacent market opportunities.
If your objective is to discover new products and services, the metrics you use to determine your success are straightforward:
- New investment opportunities identified
- New products and services launched
- Revenue generated from new offerings
#2 – Create Visibility and Credibility for a Practice
My other good friend, Jeff McKay, likes to talk about brand relevance in firm marketing. What is your firm known for and where does it have permission to compete? This issue often comes up when a firm is looking to launch a new service or enter a new market. While clients may already know your firm, they may not think of you as being relevant in the new arenas you’re looking to operate. In situations like these, thought leadership can be an effective way to change client perceptions.
If your objective is to create visibility and credibility for a practice, the metrics you use to determine success are:
- Search engine position
- Website traffic generated
- Leads generated
#3 – Attract Prospective Clients We Don’t Know
This is the objective we lean on most frequently in our client work. It’s been the promise of the inbound marketing community for years — buyers are increasingly doing their learning online and your thought leadership exists to intercept them at the earliest stages of their buying journey. Thought leadership built around this objective generally leans heavily on publishing frequency and quality to influence search engine visibility. In essence, it’s all about getting found.
If your objective is to attract potential clients you don’t know, the metrics you use to determine success are:
- Leads generated
- Pipeline generated
#4 – Open Doors with Prospective Clients We Do Know
The promise of inbound marketing was big and lofty — just publish and let clients come to you. But the reality is more nuanced. The fact of the matter is that few firms generate the bulk of their new business opportunities inbound. In fact, most firms already know which clients they’d really like to be doing business with. Often, they even know those clients hire firms like theirs on a regular basis. The challenge has been that the doors into those client relationships have been closed. In this case, thought leadership is used as a lever to pry them open. In situations like these the best strategy is often to apply an account-based marketing approach to the thought leadership program. Identify pressing issues within key target accounts and invest thought leadership resources against those issues.
If your objective is to open doors with prospective clients you already know, the metrics you use to determine success are:
- Meetings generated
- Pipeline generated
#5 – Turn Existing Prospects into Clients
While thought leadership is generally targeted at the learning stage of the client’s buying journey, it can also be a useful resource to help clients reduce the perceived risk associated with hiring a firm. Hence, it can provide value at the discussion stage as well. Thought leadership enables a client to understand how a firm thinks about problems and how it approaches solving them. It helps them understand what to expect as a client, and in so doing determine if they’re philosophically aligned with your firm. Importantly, it can help clients understand the methodologies that apply to the work and reduce the fear associated with large scale change.
If your objective is to improve your ability to turn existing prospects into active clients, the metrics you use to determine success are:
- Opportunity win rate
- Speed to close
#6 – Deepen Existing Client Relationships
While we generally think about thought leadership as our primary tool for attracting new clients, in many instances it can be even more effective at helping partners and account managers deepen existing client relationships. One of the most common issues we hear from firms is the challenge associated with getting clients to understand the breadth of their firm’s expertise and service offerings. The firms feel as though they could be providing much more value to their clients than they already are. One of the best ways to demonstrate these untapped pockets of value is for existing client account managers to share the firm’s thought leadership through personal notes and 1:1 client interactions.
If your objective is to deepen existing client relationships, the metrics you use to determine success are:
- Qualitative feedback from clients on the thinking expressed in the thought leadership itself
- Pipeline generated
Track your progress
It’s tempting to look at this list and say, “Yes, we want all these things. So, let’s just pile them all together.” This is particularly tempting given that there’s overlap in what a firm might use to measure the success of many of these objectives.
Unfortunately, our experience has been that the strategies and tactics used to unlock these objectives don’t always overlap and are quite nuanced. We’ve seen this first-hand both in our client work and in the marketing we do for Rattleback. Even objectives that look very similar on the surface — attracting clients you don’t know and opening doors into those you do — require different mindsets, strategies and tactics in order to achieve success. Generally, our advice is to narrow in on just one or two central objectives. Then, focus on the approach you plan to take and establish SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based) goals you can use to determine what success means to your firm.
Use a simple metrics dashboard, like the one below, to gauge your progress.