Even before the downturn, accounting firms sought to move from being transactional service providers to trusted business advisors. The business rationale for doing so is three-fold:
- Advisory relationships are deeper and harder to dislodge
- They position the firm to serve a greater range of needs across the client’s enterprise
- They allow the firm to deliver greater value.
Advisory relationships, in other words, make the most of every client relationship at a time when doing so is essential to the firm’s future. Beyond those tangible benefits, advisory relationships tend to be intrinsically more rewarding and lead to greater professional growth. They epitomize the reasons why many of us were attracted to professional services in the first place.
In making this transition, the marketing function plays a critical role in allowing the firm to be seen in a brighter, more valuable light. But it is not merely a question of “branding” and “positioning.” Rather, it is a matter of more powerfully leveraging the intellectual capital of the firm in its communication with clients.
Traditionally, for example, many firms stay in front of clients with technically oriented alerts on regulatory and compliance concerns such as International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) or FIN 48 (FASB Interpretation No. 48, Accounting for Uncertainty in Income Taxes). But being a business advisor means pulling back the lens and thinking more broadly about your clients’ strategic concerns, identifying the points where those strategic issues overlap the problem-solving capabilities of the firm and then “owning” those points in the mind of the client.
Complexity Brings Opportunity
And herein lies the great opportunity: From the valuation of businesses after disasters like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, to sustainability assurance in the age of global supply chains, to financial planning for the millennial generation, there has never been a greater variety of complex, headline-grabbing issues on which accounting firms can take the lead. Firms that stake out their ground now will be in a position to reap the benefits as these topics solidify into ongoing business issues.
On a tactical level, “staking your ground” around these high-profile issues often happens through presentations, surveys, white papers and other communication vehicles that fall into the category of “thought leadership.” Indeed, throughout the professional services sector, thought leadership is where much of the long-term marketing game is won or lost. Being the “go to” expert who clients count on for strategic advice is coveted territory; everything from business development to recruiting tends to accelerate once that position is reached.
Know the Six Success Strategies
Unfortunately, thought leadership efforts too often fall short, ending up as expensive exercises in frustration that do little to move the needle. This is particularly the case when firms try to ratchet up the sophistication of their thought leadership outreach. The challenge, frankly, is that is good thought leadership initiatives are more difficult than they look. That’s why it is important to have a clear understanding of the success factors involved. Any good thought-leadership campaign is likely to have the following characteristics:
- It requires thinking. Merely producing content — doing an industry survey, for example or white paper on a meaty topic, can be so draining that it seems like a victory to just get it done. But the fact is that the world doesn’t need more content. It needs more meaningful, quality content — “A-ha!” not “So what?” This requires the partners — the subject-matter experts — to invest the time and energy necessary for a deep dive on the topic at hand. Accept in advance that this process is likely to be time-consuming and circuitous — and worth the payoff when the insights come. (It also helps to choose topics in which there is a lot of interest and a lot to say.)
- It is aligned with the firm’s business development goals. An accounting firm isn’t an academic institution; when it produces knowledge, it does so to link client needs with the services it provides. The firm’s thought-leadership efforts should be developed and prioritized to support the areas in which it has decided to make a strategic business effort. This requires close communication between the marketing department and the firm’s executive committee; thought-leadership potential and business potential are separate and may well be distributed differently across the firm’s service lines, requiring diplomacy in how resources are allocated.
- It has solid takeaways for the client. At the end of the day, clients want to know, “What does this mean for me?” When dealing with big-picture, strategic issues, extra effort must be invested in translating insight into client takeaways in the form of concrete conclusions and recommendations. This is also usually true when there is the strongest opportunity to subtly, yet clearly, align client need with firm capability.
- It is sustainable. Too often, the publications’ pages of firm websites are a graveyard of short-term efforts — newsletters that stop after a handful of issues, one or two out-of-date industry surveys and a stop-and-start stream of white papers. To be sure, not every thought-leadership effort needs to represent a sustained commitment — there is definitely a place for one-off projects. It just shouldn’t be all one-off projects. The best thought leadership efforts are those that build momentum and reinforce a firm’s expertise over time, such as an annual or semi-annual survey or a white paper series that produces ongoing insight under a unifying umbrella. (And approach newsletters with caution. Maintaining even a quarterly publication consumes a significant amount of resources that could be used in a more targeted fashion elsewhere.)
- It is consistent. In practice, thought leadership marketing is difficult to plan for and schedule. Projects will emerge at different speeds from the different industry practices and services within the firm and according to the opportunities presented by unfolding events. At the same time, there needs to be a uniform look and feel so that the pieces all support the firm’s brand and speak with the same voice.
- It is leveraged across multiple sales and marketing channels. Thought leadership pieces are an asset — the return achieved depends on how shrewdly they are deployed. A presentation at a conference can be turned into a bylined article in a key trade publication. The release of an industry survey can be accompanied by a focused public relations campaign and breakfast panel discussions for key clients. Whatever form the marketing effort does take, it needs to be supported by a structured and disciplined outreach to clients and potential clients to ensure that the message is reaching its intended target and to the right end. (For more on effectively linking marketing and sales, see Is Your Firm Wasting Valuable Profits on Marketing?)
Well-executed thought leadership campaigns aren’t easy, but when done correctly they can be powerful business development platforms. They also, not incidentally, show the firm at its forward-thinking best, not just to clients, but to itself.
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Bradley W. Bloch is president of Athlon, a New York-based consultancy that helps professional services firms design and execute effective thought leadership campaigns.