Why is thought leadership increasingly critical to the success of professional services firms? Why do market leaders also tend to be thought leaders?
As a growing number of firms across the professional services spectrum have discovered, thought leadership can strengthen your market positioning, enhance your perceived value to clients and generate more business overall.
Indeed, professionals can distinguish or differentiate themselves in a crowded field by becoming thought leaders. In their new book Professional Services Marketing, Mike Schultz and John Doerr contend that thought leaders can expect “greater recognition, demand and reach in the market.”
Thought leadership can be defined as the presentation of insightful, provocative and compelling perspectives that frame the way people think about key issues and even guide them to smarter decisions.
The reason that thought leadership is now so important to the performance of professional services firms can be traced to several factors.
The first factor is trust and authority. Considering the turbulent state of the economy and trepidation of today’s buyers, the premium on trust is higher than ever. In fact, research on “loss aversion” suggests the threat of losses looms far larger than the benefit of corresponding gains. As a result, prospects are unlikely to become clients unless a high level of trust has been established, particularly in this economy. By presenting compelling perspectives and backing them up with convincing evidence, thought leaders become trusted authorities and earn the confidence of their prospective clients and other market influencers.
The next factor is the changing dynamics of client buying decisions. In the past, buyers might have been more open to the unsolicited pitches of professional service firms. The seller once had a great deal of information that was not available to the buyer – and a seller’s offer might initiate a buying process. But now buyers are increasingly relying on the Internet to conduct their own research and facilitate their own decisions. Firms that fail to provide relevant content on the Internet and in other forums are unlikely to be found much less respected. Even firms engaged in active outreach and business development efforts need to be able to point to resources that establish credibility.
The final factor is competitive pressures. If one’s competitors are out to establish themselves as thought leaders, then you are vulnerable to being left behind if you don’t engage in similar pursuits. This is exactly what’s happening now. Firms are increasingly investing in content-rich marketing efforts that involve white papers, articles, case studies, presentations, published research, public relations and social media outreach. The more firms engage in thought leadership initiatives, the more the market expects such efforts and evaluates its suppliers and service providers based on them.
Let’s take a look at a few firms – specialists in consulting, accounting and law – that are actively capitalizing on the power of thought leadership. By producing rich content and promoting it in various media and channels, they have become trusted authorities in their fields. They demonstrate why firms should be investing in thought leadership now.
McKinsey & Co. Consistently cited as one of the most prestigious and influential management consulting firms in the world, McKinsey recognized the wider potential of investing in thought leadership back in the 1970s and 1980s. That’s when it began producing top research on management topics and presenting it as thought-provoking articles in the Harvard Business Review or theWall Street Journal. Other research has been presented to clients and prospects as well-researched pieces in its own, widely read periodical, the McKinsey Quarterly.
Paul Friga, co-author of the book The McKinsey Mind, explains that such work serves two purposes. It helps prospective clients better understand key business problems and it lets them know McKinsey has expertise in these areas of concern. This represents a powerful alternative to traditional marketing. “It’s the general principle of demonstrated competency rather than claimed competency,” says Friga. “Advertisements make claims [about expertise]. But there’s probably nothing better than actually showing you.”
While McKinsey’s published work has traditionally been derived from client-driven research, the firm is now taking some new steps with a Web-based publication that draws on the perspectives of recognized experts outside the firm – be they researchers, journalists, executives or policy makers. The new site – What Matters – is designed to connect McKinsey with new audiences and prospects by further extending its brand as a trusted provider of relevant insights.
Moody, Famiglietti & Andronico (MFA). This Boston-area CPA firm has differentiated itself in the crowded accounting field through its own brand of thought leadership. Spend some time on the firm’s Web site and you’ll observe an array of industry articles, a blog that covers key trends in accounting, webcasts and audiocasts, and a speaker’s bureau with experts who can tackle dozens of different issues. By actively making its partners and team members available for events and press quotes, the firm demonstrates a hallmark of thought leaders: a commitment to achieving greater visibility.
The firm has even dedicated a section of its Web site to thought leadership and labeled it as such. Site visitors can read managing partner Carl Famiglietti’s views on how CFOs can control audit costs or learn partner Will Andronico’s perspectives on how to deal with fair value accounting. Webcasts address everything from the implications of new FASB accounting standards to achieving compliance with the Massachusetts Personal Data Security Law. For some of these resources, visitors must fill out a request form, helping to generate new leads for the firm.
While the MFA Business Insights blog enables the firm to present high level trends and important news items, the firm also encourages visitors to subscribe to “MFA Alerts and Insights,” which provides timely alerts on tax and accounting issues. Clearly, the firm is taking active steps to remain in the peripheral – if not immediate – vision of its clients and prospects. That’s another characteristic of successful thought leadership.
Pullman and Comley. With offices in Connecticut andNew York, this law firm is organized into seven practice areas including Business Enterprises, Health Care, Litigation, Property Valuation, Public & Commercial Finance, Real Estate and Trusts & Estates. While the firm has raised its profile with insightful journal articles and consistently reaches out to its clients with content-rich newsletters, it’s one of the firm’s partners, Daniel Schwartz, who is most vividly making the case for thought leadership.
Schwartz is behind the Connecticut Employment Law Blog, which has become a powerful vehicle for branding himself (and by extension, his firm) in the field of employment law. He explains that, in the past, marketing his practice had “always seemed like work and there was nothing enjoyable about it.” He wasn’t interested in cultivating the media or playing golf with prospective clients. However, he discovered that he did enjoy sharing his perspectives about employment law in writing. Schwartz’s blog, which he launched in 2007, has since proved to be phenomenally successful.
He maintains the blog has “raised my profile in the field” and led to “a substantive amount of billable work.” The blog, which has generated 600,000 hits, has attracted extensive media attention and made him the go-to expert in his chosen field. It also ranks well on all sorts of relevant search terms. “I am no more of an expert in employment law than I was two years ago, but Google thinks I am,” Schwartz says. “Now people know about the blog and read it.” That’s differentiated him from other employment attorneys while enriching his personal network and opening up new business opportunities. As he sees it, “the value of keeping your name in front of people cannot be underestimated.”
As such examples demonstrate, professional services firms now have an opportunity to brand their own ideas and expertise. The media necessary to produce these insights and present them cost-effectively is now widely available. While the investment of time required to become a true thought leader may be considerable, there is simply no better way in this era to market one’s expertise and generate new business.
The question now revolves around action. Will your firm seize the moment and make the investments necessary to become a thought leader? If you hope to thrive in an increasingly crowded and competitive field, then you know the answer.