How Thought Leadership Grows Professional Services Firms Faster
What’s the best new business development tool for professional services firms? For some time, Hinge Marketing has been making a convincing case out of the proposition that there’s no better way to drive professional services growth than through a combination of compelling thought leadership, content and digital marketing.
They also walk their own talk, producing research to prove the value of their approach, and copious content to promote it, such as the recent 2019 High Growth Study. To learn more about the growth-inducing charms of being what they call a Visible Expert (such as the finding that firms with “visible expertise” grow up to five times faster), I recently stopped by the Hinge offices in Reston, Virginia for a talk with one of the Partners, Karl Feldman.
4 steps to thought leadership success
We had a wide-ranging conversation, which follows below. But my own summary of key steps to success I’ve compiled into the four videos embedded throughout this article, addressing:
- Step One: Take a hard look in the mirror
- Step Two: Keep up with what your audience cares about
- Step Three: Lead industry conversations
- Step Four: Make all of your experts more visible
Those are my summations, illuminated by Karl’s video commentary. I encourage you to read the full interview and learn what the Visible Experts in professional services marketing have to say for themselves.
The full conversation
Chuck Kent: Your 2019 High Growth study had one thing in particular that really piqued my attention. Before I lead the witness entirely, was there anything in this study that surprised you, that really popped out for you?
Karl Feldman: There are always some surprises in there. One of the things we see, in the combination of traditional and digital marketing for professional services, is that it just keeps moving towards digital.
There’s more and more opportunity there. But it’s not enough just to be doing video or getting out there and having good SEO. Are you really connecting with your audiences? Are you relevant? Are you doing all of the right things behind the scenes that make it valuable?
CK: It was actually a part of the “how are you doing things” section that caught my attention. There’s been a history in thought leadership of, “Hey, I’m a leader, I’m going to project my own thoughts.” But one of the things you uncovered was that it’s no longer just about letting your leading thinkers share their thoughts – it’s increasingly about letting others in the industry share, too, by interviewing them. That speaks to what I call “conversation leadership.” How does that manifest itself, and why is that important?
KF: Establishing yourself as what we call a Visible Expert takes conversation. If you think about it, wherever you are on the spectrum – whether you’re just starting out and growing your visibility, or you’re a global star, you want to appear in the right group of colleagues, to have that lift and visibility. It’s natural that the things that we do in real life, we want to replicate in a digital world. We want to have conversations. We want to get that out there and be seen in the light of the stars that shine brightest.
CK: I call that gilt, G-I-L-T, by association.
KF: That’s good. I’ll use that.
CK: What are you seeing as being the most relevant types of conversations to create?
KF: That’s a good question. I wish I had one pat answer, but really, it depends. It depends on what is most relevant to your audience.
It’s important to us, being research nerds, to test for what works and what doesn’t. What we found is that there’s a place for the longer conversations, but there’s also a place for the short form.
However you execute it, you have to understand what’s going to be relevant. What’s actually going to be helpful, educational, useful to that end audience in the conversation?
CK: If you’re in a conversation, you’re not just doing the talking. Professional services firms, however, are often led by people with very strong egos, who love to hear themselves speak.
CK: Do you do find that to be a problem at all?
KF: The personalities that drive some of the leading firms, yes, may have strong egos – but the very nature of professional services means that they each have to be somewhat of a people person.
Ultimately, your customers aren’t buying a product, they’re buying people, buying talent. So, although professional services might be a little late to the thought leadership game in some ways, they have some great advantages over even the tech giants, in terms of their leadership and experts, who can be very charismatic and conversational. I think it’s a good fit.
CK: And creating thought leadership content and conversations gives you the chance to get your personality across, as well as your expertise.
KF: Absolutely. You could think about this as ego, but we break it down into branding and visibility.
CK: How do you break it down? How do you measure success for your clients?
KF: You certainly have metrics that you look to: engagement, raw visibility, reputation … You can quantify some of those things, but really, a lot of the experts, ranging from very large firms to single solopreneurs, have a good gauge on what’s working, based on the conversations that they have with their audiences.
Whether it’s talent that they’re looking to bring on or new prospective clients, that conversation changes, if you’re doing it right. As your visibility rises and your conversation is scaling through, say, video conversations for example, then a conversation when you have it face to face is a little warmer. It’s almost like they know you a bit, because you’ve gotten some of your personality out there.
CK: Do you find there is an important learning component there? I mean in a good conversation, you are presumed to be a listening.
KF: A byproduct of running with the stars, of being in your peer group, is that you’re naturally going to listen.
CK: If you’ve got a partner in the firm, a CEO perhaps, and they’re doing a series of interviews with peers or prospects, then it’s almost like doing consistent field research.
KF: Right. You’ve got other people that share some of the same desires and pain points that you do.
CK: You folks have been in the thought leadership business for some time now and your take on it is making people what you call Visible Experts. Would you like to describe what a Visible Expert is?
KF: Professional services firms often have these fantastic, charismatic individuals, or super technically savvy individuals – but they may be somewhat of a best kept secret, as they are important and influential, but in the very specific circle. What we come back to with Visible Expertise is that, if you could scale that visibility and bring that reputation out to more folks, you’re going to help the rest of your team. It raises the water level for your firm and your teams overall.
CK: Speaking of teams, should the leaders alone be the visible experts, or should they have an expert team and be promoting that?
KF: One thing that we’ve learned over time is that this is a team sport. I think one of the biggest objections we’ve run into in this kind of approach is, “If I put my best people out there and make them highly visible, they’re going to get poached. Somebody’s going to see them say, ‘Oh that’s great, Chuck, why don’t you come work for us?’” The reality is, in today’s world, that’s already happening. If you are worried about one of your best folks leaving, then you have other problems.
CK: And if their competitors aren’t seeing them then prospects aren’t either.
KF: That’s right. The transparency already exists, so holding that back just hurts you.
CK: This visible thought leadership has really been a function of content marketing, a higher-level form of content marketing, if you will. But it’s such a crowded content environment now. How are you managing to get people visible? What are the things that are helping people cut through?
KF: Video is one medium that we see a consistent trend that’s generating more visibility. YouTube, right behind Google, just as a source for valuable content.
Also, as I was saying before, the key is the quality of that content – and not in the sense of high production value, but the relevancy of what that conversation is bringing to me. Whether you’re discovering that directly from the conversations you’re having, or doing systematic research, really understanding what’s relevant to your audience is how you stand out.
CK: Talk about research for a minute. You do a lot of research for clients, for them to use in their own marketing, which was a good PR gambit long before content marketing or thought leadership were buzzwords. You publish a survey with some new data, you get some coverage for it. Is that formula still working?
KF: Yes. In today’s world you simply look at the headlines – and data is king. The more that you can understand quantitatively and qualitatively what your audiences cares about, the better position you are in. It’s one of the things that we identify as common to the firms that are growing the fastest.
CK: In other words, the firms that keep up with customers keep ahead of the competition?
KF: Correct. It’s one of the reasons that we continue to do industry research for ourselves, so we understand what’s shifting, because it happens annually, quarterly.
I think we’ve got 20,000 some firms in our database and that is a very valuable foundation to build up. Not just benchmarking what works and what doesn’t, but what’s changing. It is a moving target, and I think that’s probably the biggest way that research continues to be relevant, because it’s a great way to listen.
CK: If you were to talk to the leader of a professional services firm who had yet to step up to the Visible Expert plate, what would be your top three or four pieces of advice to them?
KF: I would start with a hard look in the mirror. Think about things that I need to become a Visible Expert – it might be speaking skills or writing. What pieces am I most comfortable with that I can grab onto and get started?
The other advice I’d give is to ask, how am I going to measure my success? What does that look like? Does it mean my conversations change – with teaming partners, recruits, new business? Does it mean that I’m looking for engagement metrics online?
Those two pieces of advice will allow you to build and see what’s working, so that you have a sustainable effort.
Suggested additional reading:
How thought leadership builds shareholder value
Brand stories as strategic assets: A conversation with David Aaker
About the Author Chuck Kent, the Chief Conversation Officer at Lead the Conversation, works with executives to help them more easily create authentic, compelling thought leadership content – and to lead industry conversations. He is a writer, brand strategist, content creator and expert interviewer. Chuck is also a Contributing Editor for Branding Magazine, for which he created the monthly Branding Roundtable.