Thought leadership is notoriously difficult to plan for, but that’s what’s necessary to achieve an ROI on your efforts. Three best practice tools revealed.
In my last article, I revealed basic best practices regarding thought-leadership marketing, such as how to leverage the intellectual capital of your firm through white papers, Web content, surveys, presentations and other channels to strategically “own” topics of importance to your clients and establish your firm as trusted business advisors rather than just transactional service providers.
Much of those thought-leadership best practices center on how you think about the end product: Understanding that real thought leadership requires real, strategic thinking; making sure that your thought-leadership initiatives include actionable takeaways for your clients, integrating your thought leadership with your business development and public relations and so on.
Thought Leadership Doesn’t Just Happen
But for these things to happen on any sort of sustained level, they have to be planned and budgeted for. Execution for thought leadership generally falls to the marketing department, so the marketing team should include a “thought-leadership plan” as part of its larger annual marketing plan. But how you go about building that thought-leadership plan will have a big impact on how successful your efforts are.
When firms are in the first stage of their thought-leadership evolution, they often adopt a reactive, ad-hoc approach by default, letting initiatives bubble up from the various principals that are then executed by the marketing department. But while ad-hoc initiatives can be successful individually, they often fail to add up to a coherent, integrated thought-leadership program. In frustration, marketing departments then often move in the other direction, writing into their annual marketing plan a laundry list of thought-leadership deliverables: six white papers, say, four bylined articles for a trade publication and two surveys, plus the traditional series of shorter client alerts on technical and timely issues.
Moving Beyond the Laundry List
Having quantifiable goals for your thought-leadership initiatives has its merits. It’s important, after all, to achieve a certain critical mass in what you produce and a tally gives a good baseline measure of that. However, numerical goals should only be one component of a thought-leadership plan. You also need to consider two factors. The first is that thought-leadership efforts need to be tied to business development. The second is that thought leadership doesn’t generally occur at the firm level, but rather at the level of the individual industry practice or service line. Service lines usually include firms with specialties that cut across industries, such as Tax, Audit, Small Business Advisory, Family Business Advisory, IFRS, etc. Depending on what it is and the firm, these may or may not have the same formal structure as an industry practice. But they are separate market-facing entities (that is, the firm makes a point of calling out these capabilities on its web site, for example) and they represent distinct pools of intellectual capital to draw upon. Industry practice, on the other hand, include a group of professionals within the accounting firm that specialize in serving a particular industry, such as the real estate industry, the manufacturing industry and others. Of course, a given partner or associate may very well be associated with more than one practice
The planning, therefore, must begin there, with the firm’s marketing team meeting with each practice leader and assessing the following:
- What is the state of that industry practice or service line and what are its goals for the upcoming year? Are you rebuilding, expanding or affirming your market leadership? Do you have an established thought-leadership platform in that business on which to build? What is the firm’s “intellectual bench strength” in this area? What is capacity of the practice for the marketing follow-through that will ensure there is a return-on-investment (ROI) on a thought-leadership project? These questions help determine what sort of thought-leadership initiatives might be appropriate, as well as what is possible. A practice that is rebuilding its team under the direction of an experienced leader may not have the same bandwidth for thought leadership as one with a long-standing presence, but it may have a very real strategic need to quickly “make its mark” with a high-profile presentation and a couple of quality white papers.
- What are the key strategic client issues in that industry or service line and how do those issues intersect with your firm’s capabilities? The client perspective is essential here: Their top-of-mind issues are unlikely to be centered on accounting, but rather on business and operational matters. But below the surface, they are quite likely to have an accounting component. Identifying these problem-solution pairs generates a list of thought-leadership possibilities that carry business-development impact.
- What are the possible thought-leadership channels in that industry or service line? It may be that there is a well-read trade publication for that industry in which a couple of bylined articles would have significant reach, for example or a top-tier conference at which to speak. Or it might be that the industry is ripe for a survey that covers ongoing business topics. (Obviously, you want to make sure you aren’t covering ground that someone else has already staked out.) Each business area will be different and should be evaluated individually.
After these conversations have taken place across the firm, it’s time to collate them into a single plan, taking into account overall firm direction and priorities — which usually comes in the form of guidance from the executive committee — as well as budgetary constraints and other marketing initiatives. The marketing team has to play the role of honest broker, putting together a unified thought-leadership plan that takes into account all of this input and knowing that everyone isn’t going to get everything that they want. (Nor should they. A big part of the filtering process is assessing what are realistic, achievable goals for each practice. Good thought leadership is powerful, but it isn’t cheap and it’s very easy to sink a lot of resources into a project that is focused too narrowly to have much of an impact or for which the group responsible doesn’t have the ability to leverage.)
Give Yourself Some Room
It’s also wise to leave a fair amount of wiggle room in terms of time and cost projections. Producing quality thought leadership requires, almost by definition, a certain amount of intellectual discovery. Developing a white paper or a bylined article on a timely strategic topic often requires those involved to work though a number of complex issues — a process that is rarely very linear or straightforward. Also, because effective thought leadership is often tied to current events and issues, it’s likely that unforeseen opportunities will present themselves as the year unfolds. You’ll want to reserve a certain amount of resources to address those possibilities.
After considering all the factors that come into play, it’s easy to see the limitations of the “laundry list” approach. Assessing your firm’s thought-leadership needs, capabilities and goals on the practice level in which there is usually a partner-in-charge of a practice that will have its own business goals for the year, and developing a unified plan from there can be complex and time consuming, but it significantly increases the chances that you’ll receive maximum strategic return on your thought-leadership investment.
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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.