Compelling thought leadership – Part 1: Shaping the right topic

In the first of a series of posts exploring different strategies professional firms can use to create compelling thought leadership, Alastair Beddow considers a vital aspect of any campaign plan – topic selection – and explores the most common thought leadership themes of the year so far

Professional firms trying to position themselves and their fee-earners as thought leaders need to consider how to best attract and retain attention at a time when it is hard won and easily lost. One way to cut through the noise to grab the attention of an executive-level audience is to focus on themes and topics that are top of mind, and more importantly, relevant to the target audience.

While that advice may initially sound a little trite, it is remarkable just how many senior buyers of professional services – finance directors, in-house lawyers, CEOs, and others – regularly tell me that the professional firms they use do a poor job of tailoring their insights to topics that are of most interest. Instead clients say they are routinely bombarded by generic emails which they either don’t open or take only a cursory glance at. Perhaps the biggest frustration among clients is that they have to wade through a deluge of information to find what is most relevant.

In light of this challenge, how can firms shape a compelling and relevant thought leadership topic? To answer this question it is worth going back to basics. Put in simple terms, thought leadership serves a dual purpose: on the one hand it provides content which can support a firm’s brand-building and directly business development effort with clients, and on the other hand it provides content which is genuinely insightful and useful to executives grappling with the complex realities of managing a business. For thought leadership to cut through it therefore has to meet an unmet need for insight, foresight, data and opinion.

For a firm to satisfy that need successfully it should build on its understanding of the priorities and needs of its own clients. Collating internal knowledge about clients and the wider market is the starting point for an effective thought leadership campaign plan. It will ensure that the campaign both resonates with clients, and that any new research undertaken builds on, rather than simply reconfirms, existing knowledge.

A framework I find aids topic selection when working with clients is a “Megatrends Map”. It is not an exhaustive list of potential topics areas, but a tool to help structure thinking about potential themes. Meridian West’s “Megatrends Map” divides topics into three broad business agendas – growth, efficiency and risk – and the implication of these for different professional services buyers.

When choosing where to focus its thought leadership, a firm should prioritise the topics that feature top of the agenda for clients and offer the best opportunities to showcase their expertise. By working from the client backwards to determine the topic of focus, firms will ensure that their thought leadership is better tailored to the target audience.

So, what have been the hot thought leadership topics for 2015 so far? After reviewing more than 160 thought leadership publications produced by leading accounting and legal firms published so far this year, a number of common themes emerge. Technology, data analytics and developments in mobile and cloud computing all frequently appear. Africa and South America are the emerging markets being written about most this year. And thought leadership is increasingly sector-focused: public sector, FMCG and retail, and TMT have proven popular topics.

However, just because a theme has been written about a lot, doesn’t mean a firm cannot add valuable new insight to extend the current debate. Finding an unexplored angle on a topic that reflects clients’ concerns and provides practical and fresh insight is an important foundation to build a campaign that cuts through the noise and gets noticed.

Three lessons for finding the right topic:

  1. Start with client needs and priorities when framing a topic to ensure the greatest relevance to the target audience. What problems, issues or concern are topic of your clients’ agenda? How does this vary by practice area or sector?
  1. Build on internal knowledge to develop robust hypotheses and lines of inquiry that will form the basis of any original research. What are fee-earners hearing regularly from their clients? Where are the gaps in existing knowledge that need to be filled with additional research?
  1. Always keep an ear to the ground to ensure that thought leadership taps into the current zeitgeist. What topics are providing competitors and professional firms in adjacent sectors with the most traction with clients? Where is the opportunity to explore a new angle extend the debate?

By Alastair Beddow