You’ve developed and published thought leadership for a while now, but you’ve yet to see meaningful traction from your efforts. Don’t give up. Instead, do the right research to uncover game-changing insights on how to address your clients’ most pressing problems.
Creating and sharing your firm’s original thinking takes time and effort. It’s discouraging when none of it seems to significantly move the needle. When a firm’s thought leadership is underperforming, I’ve found it’s usually because the content lacks three key things to truly cut through the noise: 1) perspective, 2) rigor, and 3) evidence.
Simply publishing your firm’s viewpoint regularly is usually not enough for thought leadership to create sustained business growth. To deliver real value, your thought leadership program needs original research that uncovers unconventional approaches for solving your clients’ most pressing problems. Yet most firms don’t invest in this type of research. And when they do they often go about it the wrong way. In this article we cover:
- Why thought leadership frequently falls short
- The need for original thought leadership research to achieve breakthrough insights
- The right way to approach thought leadership research
- How thought leadership research serves as the fodder for “big G” growth over years or decades.
DIAGNOSING THE DISCONNECT BETWEEN YOUR CONTENT AND YOUR CLIENTS
Attracting new clients through thought leadership is only getting harder. We’ve seen an explosion of content over the last decade. In the last year it’s been accelerated further with advances in AI. Your clients are constantly scrolling through aggressively algorithmic news feeds and fielding emails and meeting requests — all while trying to deliver value to their clients.
At the same time, it’s never been more critical to sharpen and share your firm’s unique POV to lead the conversation on your clients’ most pressing problems.
To break through the noise, you need to get to the root cause of why your content isn’t cutting it. I’ve seen it come down to these three things:
- Your content lacks perspective. Clients are attracted to firms that offer a novel and better way of solving their most pressing problems. If your subject matter experts (SMEs) don’t convey your firm’s unique POV, it won’t do much to inspire the confidence your clients need to pursue an engagement with you.
- Your content lacks rigor. It’s one thing to make a groundbreaking, status-quo-challenging claim. It’s another to back it up with in-depth research and analysis, further proving you know what you are talking about.
- Your content lacks evidence. Lastly, game-changing thought leadership needs real-world examples to prove your hypothesis, explain your findings, and put insights into context. It’s easier to understand a new concept when you can see it in practice, right? The same goes for your clients who need to develop a deeper understanding of the unique POV you are professing.
THE DATA DON’T LIE: RESEARCH IS CRITICAL TO THOUGHT LEADERSHIP PROWESS
Here’s data to back up our claims: In our 2022 thought leadership survey, conducted in partnership with Buday Thought Leadership Partners and Phronesis Partners, we asked 152 clients to rank order nine aspects of effective thought leadership. The top two aspects deemed critical to an impactful piece of content were:
- Evidence that the solution to a problem has worked, and
- Depth of knowledge shown about the problem and how to solve it.
And, in our 2019 survey (also conducted with Buday TLP and Phronesis Partners) of 312 thought leadership marketers, we found a major difference between high-performing firms and others in their use of research in developing top content. When asked about the source for their most successful thought leadership campaign in the prior three years, over 50% of high-performing firms pointed to original research. On the other hand, only 35% of other firms attributed the source of their top content to research.
For real-world examples displaying the power of original research in successful thought leadership programs, look no further than The Challenger Sale or Net Promoter System. What are now household names (at least to sales and business people) were once status-quo disruptors borne out of original research that illuminated a novel way to solve a real-world client problem.
WHY THOUGHT LEADERSHIP RESEARCH IS CRITICAL TO BREAK-THROUGH INSIGHTS
If you’ve struggled to invest many resources into your thought leadership research, you aren’t alone. In our 2019 thought leadership study, the majority of what firms published was not based on original primary research. In fact, 46% of firms’ thought leadership content was based on the subjective opinion of an expert, while 13% came from basic secondary research.
When content is based on an SME’s experience, they often draw their perspective from a fairly small sample size of clients drawn over years. While there is value in that experience, that sample size isn’t robust enough to make groundbreaking claims. Exacerbating this superficial approach is that SMEs often share practices they perceive to be “best” when they may or may not be, in reality, extraordinary at all. However, the SMEs themselves are unaware of this.
When firms do invest in research, it’s not often approached in the most effective way to generate impact. When I hear about firms conducting what they call “market” or “brand” research, it’s a tell-tale sign that the results will only affirm existing ideas rather than uncover breakthrough insights. Conducting a study on how executives view a business issue provides a pulse check but rarely reveals anything noteworthy.
While not inherently wrong, this type of research tells your clients what’s happening around them without providing novel solutions to help them get through what’s blocking them. You’re giving a weather report that describes current conditions when clients want your help preparing for the unseen storm that’s coming.
thought leadership RESEARCH done right UNCOVERS NEW SOLUTIONS TO COMPLEX PROBLEMS
Thought leadership research, when done well, uncovers ways for your firm to solve a sticky issue in a savvier way. That said, the best data comes from a combination of qualitative and quantitative research. The best quantitative studies are structured using a “leaders/laggards” approach to identify top performers, whether they’re companies, teams, or individuals. To do this, focus on one mission-critical problem that your ideal clients face. Then develop a study that explores how they’re currently solving it.
Qualitative research digs beneath the surface to unearth the root cause — the “how” and “why” — of an issue. The best way to do this is to spend concentrated time with the executives from leader organizations to get underneath the data set. You want to find out:
- What are they doing to solve this problem?
- What mindsets are they bringing to the task?
- What motivations are behind their approach?
- What is unique about their company or team culture?
How do you know when you’ve struck game-changing gold? In truth, it may take a while. Good data takes time to gather and analyze; you won’t realize insights overnight. Thought leadership gold emerges gradually. Start with a hypothesis, but be ready to toss it. When your findings appear to conflict with conventional wisdom, you may be onto something big.
CASE STUDY: TRANSFORMATIVE RESEARCH FROM DCM INSIGHTS
The Rainmaker Genome Project, published recently by DCM Insights in the Harvard Business Review, set out to uncover what the top rainmakers — the most effective doer-sellers of professional services firms — do differently than their peers. Spurred by a concerning issue at the global law firm Baker McKenzie, the team sought to uncover why strong relationships were no longer a guarantee of getting repeat business.
The breakdown of data showed how critical of a problem client retention was becoming. In an excerpt from the article — “A survey we conducted of roughly 100 C-level executives revealed that as recently as five years ago, 76% of buyers preferred to buy again from partners or firms they had used in the past. Today, that figure is down to 53%—and over the next five years, it is expected to drop to 37%.”
The subsequent thought leadership study included 1,800 partners from across 23 firms. It focused on identifying how they approached business development. From the analysis, the researchers articulated five distinct profiles that defined how individual doer-sellers approached business development. They labeled them as activators, realists, debaters, confidants, and experts. From there, they looked at which profiles had the greatest impact on performance.
The killer insight? The activators were far and away the most successful of the five profiles. As it turns out, these individuals take an approach to business development that stands in the face of conventional wisdom of relational doer-sellers. Instead of focusing on a small handful of key clients, activators concentrate on three things: Building connected networks of colleagues and clients; creating value through collaboration; and committing to a proactive and consistent business development routine. They pursue relationships up and down the organizational ladder, and “sell the collective ‘we’ of their firms rather than just the ‘me’ of their personal expertise.”
While the impact of this research is still emerging, I suspect it’s going to force a long and lasting change on how professional services firms of all types, shapes, and locations approach business development for years to come.
Note: For an in-depth look inside The Rainmaker Genome Project check out the interview we hosted with the researchers and DCM Insights founding partners, Matt Dixon and Rory Channer in our podcast, Rattle and Pedal. Give it a listen.
THOUGHT LEADERSHIP RESEARCH: THE STRATEGIC ENGINE FOR GROWTH
Thought leadership research serves two primary roles for most firms: fueling marketing and sales programs and differentiating existing service offerings. But the most impactful research goes even further to spur new products and services and drive sustained growth.
Many firms view thought leadership primarily as a source of lead generation and promotion. And that’s ok for some. But truly transformational thought leadership stems from asking where your firm wants to go in the next few years, and then investing in pioneering research to unveil the breakthrough insights required to get there. The most valuable thought leadership shapes strategy and trajectories, not just marketing campaigns.
Over the years, I’ve talked a lot about The Challenger Sale research. This research upended conventional wisdom on how the best B2B sellers approach selling. For about a 5-year period, every sales and marketing consultant everywhere was talking about The Challenger Sale. It permeated training services, speaking and consulting engagements. It generated billions of dollars in revenue that stretched far beyond the original reach of Brett Adamson and Matt Dixon (the co-authors) or CEB (their employer). But more than opening new revenue streams, The Challenger Sale redefined sales coaching and training. It enabled CEB to build differentiated capabilities around its proprietary model. Ultimately, it droves hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the firm. And it was a key piece of IP in its multi-billion dollar sale to Gartner.
Ultimately, thought leadership research is the path to big “G” growth over years or decades.