Coast joined Meridian West and Message Consulting on 17 February for a roundtable breakfast to discuss changing trends and the ambitions of professional services firms in their 2019 thought leadership programmes.

The big themes for discussion included engagement, delivery channels and measuring campaign success.

Attending the round roundtable were senior marketing, content creators and business development leaders from law, accountancy and property firm.

Suzanne Snowden, founder of Message Consulting and former Global Director of Thought Leadership at PwC, opened the discussion acknowledging that the proliferation of thought leadership programmes matched with the seemingly inexhaustible delivery channels leaves businesses with a challenge: what should thought leadership focus on and how should it best reach its target audience?

There is, Suzanne explained, a move particularly amongst professional services firms to direct thought leadership towards individual sectors, but the tendency to focus on historical outlooks remains.

Roundtable participants agreed that finding unique themes are increasingly a challenge, making it considerably harder to secure buy-in from internal stakeholders.

Start with strategyThe answer?  Start with strategy.  What is the overall strategic direction of the firm or practice area?  Involve early on smart people who are responsible for delivering against that strategy and tap them for ideas.  Do those ideas best reflect the strategy and ambitions of the firm?

Consider too, the involvement of clients in identifying themes: they are almost always more than happy to share their hopes and fears for their business and sector.  Don’t forget the more formal client feedback programmes a business may operate – they too should be mined for ideas.  And dare to be different.  Boring thought leadership programmes are unlikely to be given much attention whilst being ‘whacky’ can help a firm stand out from the crowd.

Much too muchOne of the problems facing larger professional services firms is the weight and frequency of campaigns created.  Can one firm create too much thought leadership?

The answer, trailblazed by PwC, is the creation of a thought leadership advisory board: a panel of carefully selected senior individuals to review the business case for proposed thought leadership campaigns and to monitor the success of existing programmes.

It is, the table agreed, important to know when to say no and when to pull the plug on a campaign (particularly legacy campaigns), even though at the time it may appear to be a success.

Given that many firms will have considerable thought leadership back catalogues, firms should regularly revisit campaigns to reignite conversations.  When thought leadership campaigns are aligned to strategy there will be opportunities to start or resurrect conversations with clients for quite some time after the initial burst of activity.

Purpose drivenThere are, of course, many ways to measure the success of a campaign but the starting point will always be knowing what the purpose of the campaign might be.  A clear purpose will shape whether research is needed and if so to what extent.  It will help identify target audiences and the most appropriate distribution channels.

The results can be surprising: where it can be difficult to secure budget or buy-in for research-led campaigns, consider instead starting with an event gathering the data and opinions to fuel the campaign.  Another option might be to invite a range of subject industry specialists to contribute editorials around a common theme and publishing them in a book or special report.

As firms ask more of their thought leadership there is a tendency for campaigns to become ever-more focused.  Large campaigns will undoubtedly remain, but we are seeing firms adopt a larger number of increasingly targeted thought leadership programmes.

And purpose is also shaping distribution channels.  Print is making a resurgence as email inboxes become ever-more cluttered.  Long form reports are increasingly accompanied by short-form versions as attention spans shrink.  Podcasts are increasingly being adopted as part of the distribution, although the jury remains out on their effectiveness.

A dirty wordThe roundtable concluded with acknowledgement that thought leadership is overused and as a result can lose its impact.  Questions were also raised over the name itself – thought leadership is misused and misunderstood – although a viable alternative has yet to be settled on.

Marketing and business development teams are constantly reinventing the work they do as they seek to help firms stand out in a crowded market.  Thought leadership – or a good old fashion marketing campaign – is a key component in professional services firms’ marketing toolkit.