What is thought leadership and why is it so important?

Posted on: July 20, 2012

Most marketers in the professions understand the value of thought leadership as a tool for positioning a firm, creating new markets and services, driving innovation and, of course, raising profile and generating leads and interest from clients and potential clients.

But what I perhaps hadn’t appreciated was how important it was for the lawyers, accountants and surveyors themselves to understand the concept and the simple steps to create a thought leadership campaign so that they could work with the in-house marketers to produce powerful campaigns as part of an integrated marketing, communications and selling programme.

Here’s a short summary of the thought leadership elements of a recent Promotional Campaign Development Workshop I ran for several groups of lawyers (who produced some cracking campaign ideas that they are now developing).

What is thought leadership?

  • A thought leader is an entity (organisation or individual) that is recognised for having innovative ideas and usually publishes original research and/or opens up debate about a critical new issue or idea and/or promotes (sometimes lobbies) for change
  • The term was coined in in 1994 by Kutzman who was editor-in-chief of the management consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton’s magazine “Strategy and Business”
  • Amongst the first designated thought leaders was Charles Handy, a British management guru who wrote books such as “Understanding Organizations” and “The Age of Unreason: New Thinking For A New World” and who coined the term “portfolio career”
  • A thought leadership campaign is where there is an integrated programme of activities – research, public relations, publishing, events, digital marketing, social media, meetings, lobbying, media relations, conference speaking etc – based around a cause or issue carried out over a specified period of time
  • Thought leadership campaigns are most likely directed at the business-to-business market although there are lots of examples of the professions having effective thought leadership campaigns in consumer markets.

Any good examples in the professions

Thought leadership campaigns are the marketing mainstay of the world’s largest and most prestigious management consultancies. Most will know of the “In search of excellence” book – which was based on interviews with a number of leading companies and resulted in numerous articles, reviews and conference talks – and ultimately became part of most MBA courses. See an article in The Economist from September 2009 and also one on “thought followship” from May 2000 www.economist.com/node/334014

For example in the legal sector, Taylor Wessing (who won an award so the information is in the public domain) undertook research to compile the Global IP Index – a database showing a league table of all the countries in the world with a review of the robustness or safety of their intellectual property protection and enforcement regime. The campaign started in 2008 and the research is repeated each year generating coverage in legal and intellectual property media as well as a host of international, national and business media. There is a separate web site where downloads are available as well as a host of other information and services about IP protection – there are also events.

Accountants and corporate finance professionals Grant Thornton in association with Mergermarket produced an excellent thought leadership campaign around finance for business. It carried out a survey of 200 mid-market CEO’s and FD’s about their experiences and challenges around financing. The findings “The Finance Flow” provide a complex insight into the UK’s mid-market. There are publications, flow charts and guidance notes showing the various routes and pros and cons, as well as a host of regular and one off events and all manner of other information. The campaign was used to good effect to develop relationships with intermediaries and referrers as well as companies seeking finance.

The property professions are pretty good at thought leadership too as many have significant research teams who track and manage transaction and value information across the retail, commercial, industrial, investment and residential markets. There are a host of good thought leadership campaigns for example, the Driver Jonas Deloitte Crane Survey (counting cranes as an indicator of development pipeline) and Colliers CRE Net Stock Absorption (NSA) data – a different way of looking at property use and availability.

In the consumer markets I would mention Seddons lawyers who commissioned research some years ago using OnePoll into the reasons why people might or might not consider a pre-nuptial agreement and generated a lot of television, radio and print coverage – as well as significant web traffic – and their follow up research campaign on the extent of disagreements about wills and probate litigation with coining the term “the Vulture Syndrome”.

Some of the leading family practices – Manches and Mishcon de Reya – have also commissioned research into the extent of children losing contact with the non-resident parent post-divorce, linking this to the anniversary of the Children’s Act and driving lobbying campaigns to change the law. Other campaigns have considered the rights of grandparents in divorce.

How do you create a thought leadership campaign?

The guidelines are pretty similar to generating any sort of PR campaign, which can be summarised as follows:

  1. Research “What is happening now?”
  2. Plan “What should we do or say and why?”
  3. Act and communicate “How and when to say it?”
  4. Evaluate “How did we do?”

The following steps – which I have developed over several years – have been found by non marketing or PR professionals to be helpful:

  1. Select a market or segment of interest (linking to your overall strategy)
  2. Undertake some preliminary research to identify an emerging or future issue of interest or impact to that segment
  3. Check the “fit” with the firm’s desired positioning and consider the (new) product or service development needs and your key messages and potential Calls to Action
  4. Establish a project team and a champion
  5. Develop a detailed plan to consider the overall timescale and the various elements of the communications and sales campaign – identify the objectives, the resources and the anticipated results and return on investment
  6. Undertake more detailed research (either yourselves or by commissioning a third party or working with a collaborative partner) and/or develop opinions on how things might develop
  7. Write the material and publish the results
  8. Initiate the media campaign and issue information about planned events
  9. Follow up leads and sustain the effort

The following blogs might also be of interest:

 

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As always, if there are particular topics you would like me to address in the future, please let me know. You will also find a source of more and up to date information on a broad range of management and marketing issues in the professions by checking out the blog where I also post regular reviews of books that might be helpful.

 

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