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Use thought leadership to show you have thought leaders

Every year, we survey buyers of consulting to understand their perceptions of consulting firms in what we think is the largest annual survey of its kind, with over 3,600 responses this year. As part of that, we ask clients what’s most important to them when thinking about specific firms they’re familiar with, and—as we’ve explored before in our blogs—we’ve seen a big shake-up in what clients tell us. This year, brand and reputation has shot to the top of the charts, followed by subject matter and sector expertise. In contrast, the quality of thought leadership—which perennially has been one of the four most important attributes to clients—has dropped in importance.

Note: We did not ask about the importance of sector knowledge & expertise prior to 2020.

While getting access to expertise has always been a key reason for hiring external consultants, we think the radical change brought with COVID-19 has made it more important than ever. Of course, all firms claim to have experts, but expertise has become more of a differentiating factor for clients: They want consultants who have spent the pandemic working at the frontier of their subject or sector to understand what the latest thinking means to their organisation. Remote working has also made the depth of expertise (or lack of it) more apparent, as firms can put genuinely world-leading experts in front of clients wherever in the globe they sit, without the need to jump on a plane.

Does this mean that thought leadership can be de-prioritised? Absolutely not. First, high-quality thought leadership still matters: It’s seventh of the 16 attributes we ask clients about. Second, it’s important to remember the data shows relative importance. While some attributes may be less important relative to others, they are not unimportant in themselves.

But crucially, thought leadership can also be used as a tool to demonstrate your expertise as a firm and the expertise of your individuals, particularly for prospects who haven’t worked with you before. We’ve discussed before on our blogs how to boost the credibility of thought leadership content, including being clear who wrote the content, what their credentials are, and what the approach to generating insights was. Having a robust methodology, collecting highly relevant data, and performing strong analysis of that data are key components of strong thought leadership content, and can boost a firm’s reputation for expertise. However, all too often, firms still don’t clearly state who the authors of content are, instead hiding behind a list of “contributors” or marketing contacts and missing a big opportunity. Clients want expertise, you’ve asked your experts to use their expertise in writing some great content, and then you haven’t even identified who the thought leaders are! Of course, a balance should be struck between promoting the knowledge and expertise of individuals and the firm as a whole, but if you genuinely have a breadth and depth of experts within your firm, this should be possible without an over-reliance on one or two big names.

What you choose to write about in your thought leadership can also shape the extent to which you’re seen as experts in particular areas. If you publish consistently strong pieces on, say, water utilities and regularly push that to the appropriate audience, you can build up a reputation as experts on the water industry, and people will come to know who your thought leaders are. Of course, this still relies on producing good content: Poor quality thought leadership can be counterproductive and undermine your reputation for expertise if the data is junk, the analysis is poor, and the insights vague.

In the longer term, thought leadership also shapes the wider brand and reputation of firms. Know what you want your firm to be famous for, regularly write consistently strong material about those topics, and clients will start to relate your firm to those topics. Even if individual pieces of content are of high quality, firms that take a scattergun approach to publishing ad hoc content on a variety of issues in different sectors may struggle to build a reputation for any particular specialist expertise. Get it right though, and your expertise in specific areas can earn wider renown and become associated with your brand, making your name and reputation a gateway to new projects, reducing the need for people to champion you within their organisations to convince their colleagues that you’re the right firm for the job.