Becoming a “thought leader” is a goal of most executives and partners across professional services industries, but what thought leadership means and why it is necessary in today’s market are difficult for some of these professionals to articulate. Many practitioners settle for “writing articles?” and “because everyone else is doing it.” Unsurprisingly, there is a lot more to it.
If you sell a product that offers a straightforward solution to a simple problem — such as coffee, the solution to thirst and sleepiness — your customer education and marketing efforts will focus mainly on brand image. You need to communicate the emotional experience of using your product, but you don’t have to explain to anyone how it works.
But in sectors where your clients face highly complex problems and must choose among many highly complex solutions, you as an attorney or consultant are competing based on your thought leadership: your ability to define the problems and evaluate the solutions in ways that deliver value to the client.
That may seem obvious, but much of what’s currently called thought leadership is not performing this function. Buday’s book offers some recommendations for creating an effective thought leadership program across a firm:
Strive for a consistent voice. “Content cacophony,” as Buday calls it, happens when one part of a firm says a solution to a customer problem is X, while another practice group says the solution to the same problem is Y. This mixed messaging further confuses clients and works counter to thought leadership’s goal of simplifying some of the crushing complexity decision-makers have to deal with today. Consistency requires coordination across the firm.
Understand what makes great content. Buday identifies nine elements:
- Identifies a highly relevant problem
- Proposes a novel solution
- Exhibits a depth of understanding of the problem
- Suggests a feasible solution
- Provides evidence that the solution works
- Illuminates with data
- Argues clearly
- Stimulates and intrigues
See thought leadership as service innovation. Effective thought leadership brings research and development practices to bear on the ways your firm delivers its services. It is not a marketing activity — it is a service and practice development initiative. Done well, it increases demand for your services.
Find and develop talented content creators. Skillfully shaping a piece of content that will meet the nine hallmarks identified above is not something all marketers, or even all writers, know how to do. They must be knowledgeable about the audience and the problem, and be able to translate the technical knowledge provided by the attorney or consultant into a piece of writing that delivers value for prospects — and drives them to become clients.