One of the deciding factors separating the best consulting firms from the rest of the pack is their adeptness at creating in-depth, thoughtful content:aka thought leadership. Initially, thought leadership may not earn significant short-term value, but in the long-term, it can cement a firm’s reputation and legitimacy. Typically, content for thought leadership is relevant and backed up with data.
In an ideal world, thought leadership should meet the expectations set by Ron Sela,
“Thought leadership is the process of establishing a relationship with your customers and stakeholders and delivering something of value to them. During this process, you go beyond simply selling a service or product and establish your brand as the expert in the field, differentiating yourself from the competitors.”
Image courtesy of Ian Sane
It’s important to note that thought leadership is NOT content marketing, personal branding, or branded content. Content marketing is a continuation of previous conversations and dialogue. In comparison, thought leadership takes a more spearheaded approach. According to Kunle Campbell’s presentation, “Failed thought leadership packages and presents the opinion[s] of others rather than take an opinion or lead on an issue.” In other words, the purpose of thought leadership is not to support an idea – it’s purpose is to spark them.
When it comes to the best consulting firms and businesses, thought leadership is useful in order to establish a reputation in the marketplace and consumer confidence in their work. For many top consulting firms, thought leadership is a priority. On top of managing projects, consultants are expected to expand the breadth and depth of the company’s intellectual capital. Contribution within these top firms allows them to not only expand the talents of their people, but also to expand the real and perceived value of the firm as a whole.
But what separates great thought leadership from the mediocre? According to Fiona Czerniawska, “Clients look for three things from thought leadership. They want something relevant to challenges they face, something new and different, and something that is supported by hard evidence.” In other words, and as already stated, the thought leadership must have depth and be able to spearhead dialogue.
While it seems obvious, the best consulting firms are always producing content that is extremely relevant to the times. At the top of Vault’s list of Best Consulting firms for 2014, McKinsey exemplifies a firm which consistently produces articles geared towards relevant topics. For example, the firm has recently produced content targeted towards two very hot topics:healthcare and digitization, and big data. Not only are these topics relevant, but they are all based on the firm’s own research, making the content completely unique to McKinsey. The information relevant to the business world as a whole, and it’s also written with a very specific angle in mind:big data in manufacturing. Specificity makes the article more relevant to manufacturers who hope to add more efficiency to their processes.
On top of being relevant, the best consulting firms always back up their statements and research with data. This presents the conclusions as being as unbiased as possible and adds a lot of credibility to the thought leadership. For example, IBM has done a fantastic job of presenting incredibly in-depth reports across a variety of industries. The company itself owns and analyzes all of the original data, and thereby contributes something unique when it comes to the market. Data helps eliminate ambiguity and clarify opinions from reality. By leveraging the huge amount of data available to them, the top consulting firms provide rationale for the marketplace and help their readers make better business decisions.
However, from an ROI perspective, it can be difficult to justify thought leadership as a strategy since it balances a fine line of not selling too hard to the client [and thereby undermining the credibility] and creating income for the company. According to Stacey Gordon, “With true thought leadership, there’s nothing in it for me. It’s public service. It’s doing something helpful for the client.” While that sort of perspective may be a hard sell, thought leadership is part of a long-term strategy to win over the hearts and minds of potential clients.
Ultimately, thought leadership should be offered to build a better world by helping the lives of people by giving them resources to approach their problems. The best consulting firms help bring new ideas to the table and help leaders approach their business problems. And while the bottom line is important, by simply giving away some of our ideas, perhaps we all could contribute to a better world.