Without Thought Leadership, Consultancies Will Fail
Business Development in Consulting, Educating the Target Audience
Every year, Grist conducts research into thought leadership trends in the advisory industry. Hands down, this is one of the best thought leadership studies in the world.
I was able to get a sneak peek at the 2023 edition of the study. Without revealing too much information or all of the statistics, in this post, I’d like to comment on a few trends that consultancies MUST be aware of.
Thought leadership is critical to decision-makers
- “Luk, we don’t have time to produce thought leadership content on a regular basis”
- “It doesn’t seem to make any impact, no matter how much we write”
- “Our older C-level prospects don’t read our thought leadership content”.
- “We don’t like revealing the secrets to how we work – why would anyone come to us if we just distribute all that knowledge for free?!”
Over the years, I’ve heard every excuse imaginable. And with every single person – be it a consulting leader or an individual consultant on a large team – I went through the same thought exercise that inevitably led to the same conclusion: you have no choice!
In this day and age, consulting firms simply can’t afford to be stingy with their knowledge. They can’t afford not to allocate time towards creating and executing an education-driven content strategy as part of their marketing and business development efforts.
I compared the numbers between the 2023 edition of the Grist study and the 2020 edition. Three years. Not a lot of time. But the trend couldn’t be more obvious.
- In 2020: 40% of senior executives said that thought leadership is critical in their decision-making when evaluating the suitability of a new advisor.
- In 2023: 50% of senior executives said that thought leadership is critical in their decision-making when evaluating the suitability of a new advisor.
That’s a 10-point jump in just three years. Looking at the evolution of the market and buyers’ purchasing behavior changes in the last decade, I have absolutely no reason to believe that this upward trend will suddenly reverse itself in the next 5/10/15 years.
Recommended reading: Shaping Your Consultancy’s Thought Leadership To Accelerate Growth
Decision makers are more cautious than ever
Between the pandemic and the recession, decision makers have grown more cautious in the last few years. They are constantly looking for ways to reduce costs and maximize the value they get from outside partners.
As a result, there have been two major shifts in the purchasing behavior of decision-makers:
- More people than before are involved in the decision-making process on which partner/advisor/consultancy/vendor to hire.
- Senior executives want assurances of the value they will get from the consultancy they hire and sales decks and old-school pitches no longer cut it. Buyers do their own research now.
Consultancies that understand this shift in the way their prospects behave, do the following:
- They showcase their expertise via educational content that goes beyond superficial observations and dives deep into the pain points of prospects.
- They create content for a narrow audience, making this content significantly more impactful than if they were to target a more diluted audience.
- They demonstrate their value through case studies that show HOW they achieve results, not just WHAT results they achieved.
- They further shift the perspective of their audience by helping them see the larger picture and how smaller pieces of a puzzle come together. This inspires action, which, in turn, leads to prospects converting to clients.
"Are you generous with your content? If you are not, you are losing! Generosity is an engine for going viral. The more you share, the more you will grow. Selfishness doesn’t spread”. (Josh Spector, social media expert)
Decision-makers are less loyal to current advisors than ever before
This increased cautiousness about which consultancy to hire also has translated into significantly less loyalty from clients. If they don’t think they’re working with industry experts, they will not hesitate to drop their current consultancy and switch to the one they perceive to be experts.
As the 2023 Grist study found:
- 78% of senior executives agree that good thought leadership would make them consider working with the advisor or solutions provider who produced it
- 72% agree that if their own advisor or solutions provider doesn’t produce thought leadership on their priorities, they’ll look at their competitors.
If this is not a reality check for consultancies that are stubborn about creating pain-resolution-driven educational content for their prospects AND current clients, I don’t know what is.
Recommended reading: Why You Should Share Your Expertise To Grow Your Consulting Business
Decision-makers’ expectations of thought leadership are rising
There is a lot of content out there. The digital space is a massive landfill of content. However, when it comes to thought leadership, only a tiny percentage would qualify as such.
Consultancies that want their content to make an impact on prospects – and get noticed in the first place – can’t skimp on quality.
According to Grist’s 2023 study, senior executives are looking for the following qualities in thought leadership content:
- 51% want it to be action-oriented (32% in 2020)
- 50% are looking for fresh thinking (32% in 2020)
- 48% want to see authenticity (28% in 2020)
The fact that there has been a drastic increase in buyers’ expectation for thought leadership pieces to have these qualities is not surprising.
Again, there is a ton of content senior executives can access within seconds. But the pieces they actually give the time a day inspire actions, present issues from a new perspective, and sound like they were written by an individual, not a corporate machine.
Consulting firms should strive to educate and inspire their prospects, and do so on a regular basis.
Because guess what, the moment one consultancy stops producing thought leadership content, this void will get very quickly filled up by the content of another firm.
Leading thinkers in consulting are fearless with their content. They write original, fresh content that inspires and educates. They convey their deep levels of expertise with their ability to identify patterns, to address very specific pain points, to predict trends, to offer practical advice.
Recommended reading: The Best Way To Grow A Consulting Firm? Educate Your Audience!
Thought leadership must be systematized to deliver business results
Alright, so I covered why thought leadership is a critical business development tool for consultancies and I talked about the type of content that senior executives are looking for. Now let’s discuss distribution channels.
The 2023 Grist study reveals that:
- 50% of senior executives expect to find thought leadership materials from advisory firms’ emails, newsletters, and websites.
- 52% are willing to provide their email address in exchange for valuable thought leadership.
Consultancies that do not utilize email marketing to the fullest are missing out on business opportunities. Plain and simple.
And I’m not talking about salesy “Look how awesome we are” emails. I’m talking about value-driven prospect-nurturing with high-end thought leadership content: articles, summaries from industry events, case studies, research, presentation slides, webinar summaries, etc.
Recommended reading: Building an Email List Is Consultancies' Ultimate Trust Weapon
Of course consultancies will not see the ROI of thought leadership if they do not organize it around a system that includes processes like:
- A calendar of posts to be created and their formats
- A distribution calendar and a system for each distribution channel
- A way to capture interest, turn them into subscribers, and nurture the relationship, continuously developing trust with the audience
- A way to measure the impact of each piece of content
Same goes for websites. I’m amazed to still be coming across dozens of consulting websites on a daily basis where the last blog post was 2 years ago or 6 months ago. The only info-capture form is the generic ‘contact us’ form. I wonder how far that gets them…
Decision-makers are hungry for authentic, action-driven, inspiring thought leadership content.
They expect that from their prospective partners. They expect that from their current advisors. They use it as a critical metric to assess prospective partners. They are willing to leave their contact information behind to gain access to valuable thought leadership.
Really, how much more straightforward can it be?
Thought leadership is the ultimate way to showcase a consultancy’s expertise and build trust. It’s the ultimate way to build up the reputational footprint. This is not a fluke. It’s a trend that’s been in the making for years, and is unlikely to go away.
The longer consultancies resist, the further behind they will be left by those who understand the business development possibilities of thought leadership in the digital age.
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Hello, I’m Luk Smeyers, and I’m helping mid-sized consultancies become high-performing consulting firms. I have been in the consulting businesses for more than 20 years, in very different roles: as European CHRO in a global consultancy, as a founder of a mid-sized analytics consultancy, and as a leader in a 'Big 4' consultancy, post-acquisition of my consultancy. I had the privilege of achieving global visibility as a consulting leader, and I never had to sell, persuade, or negotiate as a result. I have now bundled all those experiences, expertise, know-how, research, reading, successes, struggles, and failures from managing and advising consultancies in the past years.