The sacred cows of thought leadership
Tuesday 27th Nov, 2012
All our research shows that thought leadership is more important – and more prevalent – than ever. 30% of organisations, we recently heard, now use thought leadership as one of the criteria for deciding which firms to invite to tender for their preferred supplier lists; clients tell us it’s one of the most effective ways in which a consulting firm can market itself.
So now seems like an opportune moment to slay a few thought leadership-related sacred cows.
You have to have an opinion on everything. One of the most fascinating aspects of thought leadership is that the greater the volume of material published by the consulting industry on a given subject, the lower its average quality. But how is it the quality of individual firms’ output is affected the quality of all output? In fact, it’s an example of the ‘un-wisdom’ of crowds: seeing a competitor’s article on a particular subject seems to create instant uncertainty and the desire to jump on the bandwagon, even among consultants who know nothing about this field.
It’s a one-way conversation. A nanny-knows-best philosophy might have worked in pre-social media days, but we all now expect to be able to comment, respond to and rate the things we read. Only a small number of brave firms currently encourage any kind of dialogue – and we predict that these will be the clear winners in the future.
Primary research drives good content. The consulting industry has gone survey-mad, yet most of the findings tell us nothing new because the questions being asked are anodyne and unchallenging. Never mind pictures: one seriously interesting question is worth a thousand words.
Everyone should agree with your conclusions. Every consulting firm has stories to tell of pieces of thought leadership which cost them business. But it’s important to keep such problems in proportion: as Einstein rightly observed, bad news is the only thing that travels faster than light and a handful of difficult experiences will completely overshadow the countless good ones. The line between being gratuitously offensive (bad) and opinionated (good) is a very wide one: being the latter rarely makes you the former.
You can save money by offshoring your research. A particularly contentious cow, this one: many firms now have number-crunching teams in low-cost locations. But the best thought leadership is developed by people who work closely with clients and we’ve seen measurable falls in the quality of thought leadership from firms which have gone wholesale down this route.
Less is always better than more. This is true in many cases (the cow gets a reprieve, but shouldn’t relax, it’s only temporary): most consulting firms do indeed produce too much stuff and not enough substance. But the issue is a bit more complicated than that. Particularly where emerging issues / topics are concerned there needs to be a certain critical mass before clients notice or act. If clients see that consulting firms aren’t writing much about something, they may infer that something is not worth spending time on. Don’t skimp on the subjects which are important to you.
New channels save money. Podcasts, videos, etc look attractive, not just because they’re cool, but because they’re cheap. Surely, the finance director is saying, we can produced ten podcasts for the price of a single white paper? Wrong: format and channel are subordinate to the quality of content. Podcast and videos are like icebergs: they need to float on top of decent research – and that never comes cheap.
You have to be the fount of all knowledge. This is perhaps the biggest cow of all, fattened on the arrogance of yesterday’s consulting model. But today’s clients would prefer to work with consultants who know enough to know they don’t know everything. The day a consultant walks in with an article written by a competitor and says, ‘Let me explain why you should read this’, is the day we know a revolution has taken place, the recognition that thought leadership isn’t really about data on a page, but about people who can take that data and understand what’s relevant to their clients.