Thursday, February 14, 2008

Thinking about Thought Leadership

“Thought leadership” is an oft-used term in professional services. It is also oft-misunderstood and oft-maligned. One recent internet survey of accountants asked, “Is your firm, or one or more of its professionals, a recognized thought leader?” 34% of respondents selected the answer, “What’s thought leadership?” Or, check out this piece of vitriol written by a contributor to the The Economist, “The buzziest among them (consultants) now claim not just to be consultants, or advisers, or even experts. They are “thought leaders.” The point of this exercise…is to impress their clients, by baffling them.” Our view: Somewhere between complete ignorance regarding thought leadership marketing and complete cynicism about it lays an extremely genuine and effective way to promote your brand and to build meaningful content-rich dialogue with clients, prospects and referral sources.

What is or isn’t thought leadership?
Thought leadership is a critical step in the evolution of moving from selling services to building relationships. Thought leadership is sharing intellectual capital with others to benefit your clients and to help them grow. It is a way to distinguish you and your firm in an otherwise cluttered market as “famous” for something specific. It is a way to demonstrate your difference as an expert and advisor before you are hired. Thought leadership comes from a pure place. It must be driven by the desire to establish and build a relationship – not to sell business. And, it should reinforce or enhance your claim to fame and your positioning – not distract or detract from it.

What’s not Thought Leadership? If the sole objective of, for instance, a white paper is revenue generation then it is just marketing collateral, not thought leadership. Giving a public talk which is merely a thinly veiled sales pitch for your services is advertising, not thought leadership. Sending an e-mail with a random article and writing “FYI” with no explicit connection to the recipient’s needs is SPAM, not thought leadership. Giving a speech or writing an article delivered primarily to your competitors rather than to clients or prospects is madness, not thought leadership.

Anticipatory content and self-discovery
Content which anticipates the needs and issues that may be faced by your clients is a powerful way to break through the thought leadership noise. One way to accomplish this kind of visionary thought leadership is to study the general market forces and societal trends and mentally envision the future implications. This is a “what if?” game. Imagine the types of decisions that your clients will have to make related to a specific trend. Develop several scenarios related to the trend and decision-outcomes. Brainstorm the business opportunities inherent in the future scenarios. You don’t have to present the answer (you’re not pretending to be Nostradamus), you just have to map out a framework which helps clients consider the future.

If you can’t anticipate or be first to write or speak about a new trend, you may be able to see old trends in a new way and write or speak about that. Counterintuitive approaches to issues in your field are especially good ways to gain attention for your writing or speaking material. The questions you ask yourself are the ones that yield these provocative content angles. Consider a standard, obvious or even “sacred” issue in your field. What if you reversed assumptions related to this? What if you argued for the opposite of the conventional wisdom? Innovation often occurs this way. For instance, Henry Ford reversed the usual manufacturing question of his day, “How can we get the workers to the material?” Instead he asked, “How can we get the material to the workers?” and the assembly line was created.

Consider helping clients “self-discover” their needs and issues. Sometimes, great thought leadership requires no more than teeing up an issue or idea and asking the right questions and then remaining silent. Your thought leadership audience will fill in the white space themselves.

Grand ideas and small notions
Many professionals are daunted by thought leadership, imagining that they must produce lavish reports, splendid oratory, Pulitzer Prize winning books or a major research piece involving hundreds of man hours of development, data collection and analysis. So, professionals do nothing instead. Think again. Great thought leadership can also be something much simpler and basic. Thought leadership can occur anytime you are talking or writing about a business issue instead of talking about yourself or your firm. Thought leadership can also be asking questions that force someone to think differently about their business; to effectively and tactfully challenge the status quo; to help them through an issue. This will also effectively demonstrate your ability to think and act as a strategic advisor.

Grand ideas
· Hosting seminars
· Writing books
· Publishing research
· Developing white papers
· Creating award programs
· Launching new associations or organizations
· Delivering keynote speeches

Small notions
· Writing one page “missives” sent by e-mail
· Giving talks or leading dialogues to small, informal groups
· Compiling the thinking of other experts or users
· Facilitating round table discussions
· E-mails, newsletters, handouts, case studies sent to clients and targets
· One-on-one briefings
· Sharing ideas of others (sending articles of interest)
· Sharing books written by others
· Asking the right questions
· Inspiring others to write and share their thoughts; Be a “Thoughtful Leader”

Start small. Be specific. Pick something you can be famous for. Make sure the approach you take fits your natural skills, abilities and Rainmaker Archetype. If you are a born “thought leader,” that’s great. Research, write, speak. But if you’re a natural “connector,” consider hosting a roundtable discussion where you can show off your ability to connect people and ideas. If you’re a “driver,” consider developing a system for regularly sending out books, articles and newsletters written by others but relevant to your prospects.

A process not an event
Think of Thought Leadership as a multi step process rather than as a one time event. Think, too, about not just the branding opportunity that thought leadership marketing presents but also about the chance it provides for direct and meaningful dialogue with your best clients and prospects.

Step 1: Before you begin writing or speak at an event, how can you include clients and prospects in your preparation efforts? Can you ask their views of the issue on which you will write or speak? What else can you do before?
Step 2: When you write the article or speak at the event, how can you include clients and prospects in your material? Can you quote them? Can you include them on a panel? What else can you do during the thought leadership activity that will maximize your exposure and dialogue?
Step 3: After the article is published or the event occurs, how will you follow up with attendees and non-attendees? Will you send a summary of the talk? Will you send a copy of the article with a letter indicating your latest thoughts or feedback you’ve received? How else can you follow up after the activity?
Step 4: If you’ve completed steps 1 through 3, have you earned the right to present a “sample size” offering of your services to the thought leadership audience? Connect the thought leadership material with an unmet need of your clients and prospects and show them how you can help.

No comments: