How professional services marketers can use the “thought leadership equation” to engage clients with game-changing content

Posted on January 24, 2024 by Claire Mason

In a crowded market, the pressure is on professional services marketers to cut through the noise. Over the last decade, marketing has become too focused on quantity instead of quality, with 1.5 quintillion bytes of content produced every day, and 2.5 billion blog posts published each year. As generative AI becomes more mainstream, this content load is set to exponentially increase.   

Storytelling – the world’s oldest communication technology – is a powerful way for professional services marketers to connect with clients. The question is, what stories are we telling today, and are they resonating? And how can we ensure our stories build our firm’s reputation, generate revenue, and create real-world change?  

The thought leadership equation: a big idea plus substantial data 

Well-told stories are powerful – with some even lasting a lifetime. To capture our hearts, they need to be interesting; they need a big idea. But as well as engaging our emotions we also need to appeal to the intellect – the rational part of the brain responsible for logic, problem-solving, organisation, and decision making. And to do this we need to communicate substantive information or data as part of the story.  

We’re surrounded by a blizzard of information all day, every day – and we don’t remember raw facts. There’s just too much of it. It’s only when you put data behind a big idea, that we engage with the facts, remember them, and act on them. To create effective thought leadership we need data-driven stories that have a big idea at their core to stir our emotions supported by substantive data to engage our intellect.  

This is the Man Bites Dog thought leadership equation:  

Man Bites Dog's thought leadership equation: Ideas plus data equals thought leadership.

There are five steps to harnessing data-driven thought leadership, requiring us to be strategic business partners to our clients and stakeholders:  

  1. Engage future thinking 

To be a thought leader you must lead, not follow. Forward-looking, predictive insight is much more valuable than retrospective review. But how do you develop a credible vision of what’s next? There is a whole toolkit of options to help you see trends beyond they break. This includes using scenario planning to imagine potential futures, economic modelling to understand and anticipate trends, and sophisticated opinion research – often amongst niche audiences – to get to the heart of an issue.  

  1. Identify a strong core idea 

Find a strong core idea that will set you apart and make a mark. This is not about following the crowd; it’s about telling people something new and different – a radical ‘man bites dog’ concept that involves against-the-grain thinking.  

A signature big idea is the “north star” to unify all your content, that is scalable and sustained for years to come to give you cumulative impact. Professional services marketing tends to cluster around the same themes, so it is critical to instead choose an emerging, pre-topical issue your firm can own. This is especially true for crowded spaces such as sustainability or M&A, where you need to work even harder to make sure your big idea is new and different enough to stand out. 

And while you can encompass a huge amount of detail within your campaign, you must be able to distil it into a single strong core idea that can be said in a sentence. A theme isn’t specific and new enough to be an idea – but a theme might help you scope out a starting point.  

  1. Evidence the idea with substantial data  

Once you have a clear idea, it needs to be substantiated with evidence by generating new, proprietary data. A common error is to conduct ‘state of the nation’ surveys to find out what people think on a given broad topic area, hoping to find something interesting and retrofit a narrative. This is a high-risk approach, which is likely to lead to unremarkable results. Instead, start with the end in mind, using your strong core idea to guide focused research. It’s the difference between a vague fishing expedition and following a treasure map to achieve your goal.  

  1. Align your idea to your strategy and services 

Effective thought leadership is based on a strategic idea that is anchored in your strategy to create a clear call-to-action for your services. To ensure that the idea translates into sales, it must be grounded in your business and connected with what your firm is selling. Linking the campaign to a “gateway service” such as an assessment tool or a benchmarking exercise enables business development teams to convert opportunities into revenue. Campaign-linked gateway services are also a great way of tracking marketing-influenced sales because everyone who buys the gateway service has come through your programme.  

  1. Activate your data-driven story through global content 

The fifth and final step is about winning attention and engagement. It involves unleashing your experts and engaging others in your story to build your reputation, relationships, revenue, and real-world impact. It means tailoring your campaign content to suit a multi-channel, multi-device world.   

You will need to adopt an omnichannel approach aligned with the big-picture vision set out in your global campaign strategy to land your content and messages and ensure they have maximum impact.  

Defining what’s next 

While drumbeat content, reactive marketing strategies, and pulse campaigns all have their place, to truly make an impact and develop a differentiated voice for your firm, you need a big idea that can galvanise your whole organisation and provide a “north star” for all your content and marketing efforts. Much of today’s marketing and sales content lacks a story to engage our hearts and lacks data to intrigue our minds.  

Impactful, strategic thought leadership puts the focus squarely back on quality over quantity. Strong thought leadership involves creating and amplifying big ideas; ideas that can define what’s next. It can increase your impact and grow your business, but it can also start movements, shape new markets, enrol followers, and create real-world change.  

The demand for genuine and engaging thought leadership is higher than ever before. Recent Man Bites Dog research found that 76% of business leaders more likely to do business with professional services firms that they see as thought-leading experts in their field.1  

As professional services marketers face greater competition than ever, it is critical to use the thought leadership equation to differentiate your firm from its competitors and cut through the ever-increasing noise. If you'd like to learn more about thought leadership for professional services, contact us at: [email protected].

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