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Turn your thinking on its head

In my experience in professional services, it’s often marketing and/or communications that on the whole drive the creation and production of thought leadership, to varying degrees with or without sales in the picture.

Getting better commercial outcomes from Thought Leadership

So, we’ve all been there, picture this …

… I’m in marketing, and I’ve just poured my heart and soul into what I think is a great piece of thought leadership, along with a super social campaign. With great enthusiasm, I launch it to sales, and …. nothing …*tumbleweed* … which is preferable to the killer feedback ‘It’s just not relevant to my client’. Owch.

… I’m in BD, and I’m desperate for content to keep engaging target clients at my account. I talk to marketing, who have this great piece of thought leadership that’s about to come out. Great! …. until I see it … it’s a missed opportunity; it’s nearly there, but not quite…

Sound familiar?!

Hands-up, as a marketer I’ve done it. I’ve kicked off, created and published thought leadership without talking to or working closely with my sales colleagues. I’ve sometimes started without a clear idea of what my objective is, or how it’s going to help BD either generate leads or close a sale. My bad. But don’t blame me, to quote Lily Allen in The Fear, ‘It’s not my fault, it’s how I’m programmed to function”.

But we can fix it, by all of us turning our thinking on its head, we can realise better commercial outcomes from thought leadership. Rocket science? Definitely not. But effective? Very probably.

Getting stuck top of funnel

In my experience in professional services, it’s often marketing and/or communications that on the whole drive the creation and production of thought leadership, to varying degrees with or without sales in the picture.

So, it’s probably inevitable that ‘top of the funnel’ metrics such as social engagement, web traffic and PR share of voice, are clear. But it’s much harder to demonstrate ROI when it comes to pipeline and revenue, and especially the effect it’s had on sales and relationships with specific clients.

The image shows that as you move down the sales and marketing funnel, the impact of different activity can become diluted. Top of funnel activity such as PR and web traffic is clearer, but meetings and pipeline is unclear

And that’s because our thinking often starts top of funnel, or ‘one-to-many’, and as a result, the commercial outcomes are diluted as we move down through the buyer funnel. With or without the introduction of super-funky clever marketing automation, unless we change our thinking and approach, the impact on pipeline and sales will remain elusive.

Unintentional outcomes

The scenario I’ve painted can lead to wasted opportunities, frustration on all sides, and growing, mutual distrust between marketing and sales as well as poor ROI.

a photograph of a man looking frustrated

Before we consider what this means for us (as marketing and BD professionals), let’s think about how this disjointed approach impacts the quality and relevance of our thought leadership, and what that means for clients.

We (as marketers and salespeople) often underestimate the impact and consequence that good or bad thought leadership can have – positively or negatively – on our buyers. If we did, then there’s a chance we wouldn’t let some content even get out of the door. Why? Let’s look at how clients and targets feel when they receive thought leadership, and what they do with it (compared to what we think they feel and do!).

To demonstrate this let’s look at the excellent 2019 Edelman-LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study. There are different regional editions, the study aims to help B2B companies understand the impact of thought leadership – Edelman and LinkedIn surveyed both decision makers, and creators of thought leadership, across a wide range of industries.

In a nutshell, it finds that creators and producers of thought leadership massively underestimate the impact of their own endeavours.

In 2019 Edelman-LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study, 46% of decision makers invited an organisation to bid on a project when they hadn't previously considered them. This is compared to just 25% of thought leadership creators who thought their thought leadership would have this impact
50% of decision makers are more willing to pay a premium to work with an organisation that has articulated a clear vision versus one that does not publish thought leadership - only 14% of thought leadership creators thought this would be an outcome
In 2019 Edelman-LinkedIn B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study, thought leadership directly led to 49% of decision makers to award business to an organisation. This is compared to just 25% of thought leadership creators who thought their thought leadership would have this impact
Thought leadership is a double edged sword - done poorly it can stop your business winning work or being invited to tender for RFPs

This last graphic is really powerful. I wish I’d had it years ago! In talks and presentations I deliver, I always recommend to marketers and BD people that they use this in conversations with fee earners – especially in situations where there’s a danger of publishing poor or mediocre content.

Think differently

So, without breaking existing team models or investing additional funds, I propose that we turn our thinking on its head, and take a BD-led approach to thought leadership. We must get this right – the 2018 Demand Gen report found that 49% of B2B buyers said they now rely more on content to research and make purchase decisions.

How do you do it? Start planning bottom of the funnel, instead of the top (I did tell you this wasn’t rocket science folks, but I did say it was probably effective). Shelve that launch campaign, embargo the report and instead first talk to your BD colleagues.

Don’t get caught up in having the most original idea – according to Linkedin and Edelman’s B2B thought leadership study, timeliness and relevance trump originality.

Going to market differently

When it comes to publishing, first create a toolkit that empowers your salespeople to be connecting one-to-one and one-to-few. Take time to understand what tools you have on both sides, e.g. Linkedin Sales Navigator, Pointdrive or Inmails, to inform your thinking and approach.

Sometimes a good old fashioned powerpoint deck (that can be shared on Slideshare too) is the best thing to arm sales and fee earners. Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of other ‘unsexy’ tactics such as case studies – in the Demand Gen report, 42% of buyers said they are one of the most valuable formats for evidence of business benefits.

Let web traffic, press coverage and social media campaigns, along with other top of funnel tactics, be the last thing you do, not the first thing.

Improving quality

Don’t lose sight of quality – think back to the Edelman / Linkedin research – in a sea of noise, quality and relevance are what stand out. We know this is easier than it sounds, but there are practical tools and things you can do.

I am a big fan of Source Global Research’s Pre-Publication Reviews, for example. They are relatively inexpensive, and will give you content scores against Source’s established quality criteria – most importantly, they tell you what’s working well and offer recommendations for what’s not. I found their reports especially helpful in tricky conversations with stakeholders about poor or mediocre content – having a third-party perspective took all the emotion out of the conversation.

Getting on the same page

A workshop at the outset of thought leadership planning is a great a way of bringing everyone – marketing, sales, fee-earners and even clients – together. They work especially well if they’re facilitated by a third party (everyone shows up and behaves for starters!), and they bring some external challenge and perspective into the room too.

In the past, I’ve also invited external editors such as David Taylor-Evans at Elite Publishing, a former Economist magazine editor, who has a track record in creating research-based bespoke thought leadership for one or few clients around specific sales objectives.

Take inspiration

There’s some excellent thought leadership too by Linkedin, such as their #ArtofWinning blog series (on how sales and marketing can work together – the topic du jour for Linkedin), and their quarterly magazine ‘The Sophisticated Marketer’, are must-reads for marketing and BD.

The bottom line

The bottom line is this; if you want thought leadership to have impact and incite action, sales need to be fully engaged and advocating thought leadership through the entire process. And that means before you put pen to paper, agreeing on objectives and understanding the purpose of thought leadership in the buyer journey.

It involves managing quality and stopping content that doesn’t make the grade. It means focusing on the few, not the many, at the beginning of your campaign to demonstrate clear ROI, the impact on pipeline and revenue, and the effect it’s had on sales and relationships with specific clients.

This article was first published in PM Forum magazine, Volume 27, Summer 2019. PM Forum is the world’s largest and fastest growing community for professional services marketers, with over 4,000 members in accounting, law, property, management consulting, architecture, engineering and other types of professional firms.

© 2019 Meteoric marketing & communications. All rights reserved. 

Angela Brown is the founder of B2B marketing and communications consultancy, Meteoric. She is a marketing, brand and communications professional with more than 20 years’ international experience. Meteoric provides training, facilitates workshops, improves your digital presence, and creates content and campaigns to help you deliver your sales and marketing objectives.

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