Start your thought leadership strategy in 2020

In the current professional services environment, where clients are demanding more of everything and have a great deal of choice available to them, you need to stand out. Prospective clients are making purchasing decisions based on their perceptions of you and your firm, your personal brand and your firm’s brand, so you need to actively develop both. Differentiating yourself is not as easy as just publishing articles in your area of expertise, but it’s not as hard as you might think either. You can actively plan to develop your personal brand to become known as a thought leader. In other words, your expertise needs to become more VISIBLE.

A ‘brand’ can be defined as an implied promise (to existing and prospective clients) that the level of quality people have come to expect from a brand will continue with future purchases of the same brand. Strong brand management can increase your professional profile (your personal brand) and your firm’s perceived value to clients and prospects. This can increase future sales by making a comparison with competing professionals and firms more favourable. It can also enable the firm to charge more for your services.

According to Lee Frederiksen from Hinge Marketing in his article “Brand Strength and the Halo Effect in Marketing“:

“Your firm doesn’t need to be the best at everything. You just need to be the best at something, and the Halo Effect will help pull the rest of your services forward. Similarly, you don’t need to be highly visible to everyone. But you do need to have a strong presence somewhere. From that starting point, your brand strength can grow.”

If you are a principal in a professional services firm, you need to be developing your own personal brand, as well as supporting the development of your firm’s brand. To achieve positive personal branding and powerful firm branding you need to be strategic and proactive. Hinge calls it becoming a Visible Expert®.

If public speaking is not your thing, there are many excellent speaking coaches who can help you become more comfortable with public speaking. It is an important aspect of becoming a visible expert.

You don’t need to be known to everyone; you just need to be known as a thought leader in your chosen target market. Becoming a thought leader involves specialising in a sector of the market, or providing a niche service, and developing true thought leadership content (presentations, articles, white papers, books, videos etc.) that demonstrates your expertise in this area.

What is the difference between thought leadership and content?

These days the terms ‘thought leadership’ and ‘content’ are used almost interchangeably. Marketers of professional services have been using ‘thought leadership’ as a strategic profiling, brand building device for decades. These days we talk about both thought leadership and content marketing. I’m not sure people really know what they both are and how they should be used.

Thought leadership is exactly that, leading edge thought. Thought leadership is the goal; the goal is to be considered a ‘thought leader’. Thought leadership content is material containing original thoughts, opinions and in-depth analysis, which hypothesises and proposes new concepts and ideas. True thought leadership will take a long-term view on topics and issues. It’s about building reputation and authority over time and across multiple digital, social and offline channels. Over time, this type of content will establish the firm’s experts as true thought leaders. If you are the subject matter expert, you will participate in online and offline conversations, and steadily build your credibility through affinity, authenticity and trust. This adds value to your personal brand and ultimately the brand of the firm.

Content, on the other hand, has multiple purposes. It is the material you or your firm produces, in whatever format you choose, i.e. written content, videos, infographics, memes, newsletters, podcasts etc. It specifically refers to online, digital material, although some marketers are starting to refer to offline printed material as content now too. It’s not necessarily thought leadership; it might be designed to simply inform your audience of changes in their market.

The Content Marketing Institute, an online resource for information on all things content marketing related, defines content marketing as:

“Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

The key word is “valuable”, otherwise the definition could be describing almost any form of advertising or marketing. If people seek out a piece of content and want to consume it, rather than avoid it, it’s the sort of content that could be part of a content marketing campaign.

The relationship between the two

Content marketing is about building the brand, driving client action, and ultimately driving sales, by engaging the target audience. Thought leadership is achieved by using particular types of content in a new and unique way, to build profile and positioning. For example, a white paper or report might analyse the results of industry research and you might choose to charge a fee for this content. The thought leadership content establishes the author, and the brand, as a thought leader.

Laura Ramos, of Forrester, illustrated the relationship like this:

TL Pyramid-Large

How do you use them both?

For quality content, the idea is to produce a consistent volume of engaging content, making sure it is:

  • Findable
  • Readable
  • Understandable
  • Actionable
  • Shareable

Prospective clients are increasingly searching for answers online, so firms that have a solid content strategy, building a strong presence in a niche market, with the firm’s leaders ‘front and centre’ as subject matter experts, will feel the benefits of more enquiries. This checklist from Ahava Leibtag “Creating Valuable Content: An Essential Checklist” is a great place to start.

Content should be used to engage with potential clients and drive interested prospective clients (leads) to your website to ultimately take action, by signing up for more content or to be contacted by you directly.

Thought leadership content should be used to build your profile as an expert in your area of expertise. Thought leadership ultimately helps you position yourself and your service as significantly valuable to potential clients. Prospective clients will seek you out and it will allow you to realise your optimum value.

Thought leadership content can include:

  • Keynote and technical presentations
  • In-depth analytical reports based on research
  • White papers with original analyses
  • Books

The key is to develop a targeted, structured, and informed content strategy, including thought leadership content, to increase brand engagement, become known as a thought leader, and ultimately increase your sales leads.

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