Why is thought leadership increasingly critical to the success of
professional services firms? Why do market leaders also tend to be thought
leaders? 

As a growing number of firms across the professional services spectrum
have discovered, thought leadership can strengthen your market positioning,
enhance your perceived value to clients and generate more business overall.
 

Indeed, professionals can distinguish or differentiate themselves in a crowded
field by becoming thought leaders. In their new book
Professional Services Marketing, Mike Schultz and John Doerr
contend that thought leaders can expect “greater recognition, demand and reach
in the market.”

Thought leadership can be defined as the presentation of insightful,
provocative and compelling perspectives that frame the way people think about
key issues and even guide them to smarter decisions.

The reason that thought leadership is now so important to the performance
of professional services firms can be traced to several factors.

The first factor is trust and authority. Considering the turbulent state
of the economy and trepidation of today’s buyers, the premium on trust is
higher than ever. In fact, research on “loss aversion” suggests the threat of
losses looms far larger than the benefit of corresponding gains. As a result, prospects
are unlikely to become clients unless a high level of trust has been
established, particularly in this economy.

By presenting compelling perspectives and backing them up with
convincing evidence, thought leaders become trusted authorities and earn the
confidence of their prospective clients and other market influencers.
  

The next factor is the changing dynamics of client buying decisions. In
the past, buyers might have been more open to the unsolicited pitches of
professional service firms. The seller once had a great deal of information
that was not available to the buyer – and a seller’s offer might initiate a
buying process. But now buyers are increasingly relying on the Internet to
conduct their own research and facilitate their own decisions.
  Firms that fail to provide relevant content
on the Internet and in other forums are unlikely to be found much less respected.
Even firms engaged in active outreach and business development efforts need to
be able to point to resources that establish credibility.
 

The final factor is competitive pressures. If one’s competitors are out
to establish themselves as thought leaders, then you are vulnerable to being
left behind if you don’t engage in similar pursuits. This is exactly what’s
happening now. Firms are increasingly investing in content-rich marketing
efforts that involve white papers, articles, case studies, presentations,
published research, public relations and social media outreach.
  The more firms engage in thought leadership
initiatives, the more the market expects such efforts and evaluates its
suppliers and service providers based on them.

Let’s take a look at a few firms – specialists in consulting, accounting
and law – that are actively capitalizing on the power of thought leadership
. By
producing rich content and promoting it in various media and channels, they
have become trusted authorities in their fields. They demonstrate why firms
should be investing in thought leadership now.
  

McKinsey & Co. Consistently cited as one of the most prestigious and influential management
consulting firms in the world, McKinsey recognized the wider potential of
investing in thought leadership back in the 1970s and 1980s.
That’s when it began producing top
research on management topics and presenting it as thought-provoking articles
in the
Harvard Business Review or the
Wall Street Journal. Other
research has been presented to clients and prospects as well-researched pieces
in its own, widely read periodical, the
McKinsey
Quarterly
.

Paul Friga, co-author of
the book
The McKinsey Mind,
explains that such work serves two purposes. It helps prospective clients
better understand key business problems and it lets them know McKinsey has
expertise in these areas of concern. This represents a powerful alternative to
traditional marketing.
“It’s the general principle of demonstrated
competency rather than claimed competency,” says Friga. “Advertisements make
claims [about expertise]. But there’s probably nothing better than actually
showing you.”

While McKinsey’s published work has traditionally
been derived from client-driven research, the firm is now taking some new steps
with a Web-based publication that draws on the perspectives
of recognized experts outside the
firm – be they researchers, journalists, executives or policy makers. The new
site –
What Matters – is designed to
connect McKinsey with new audiences and prospects by further extending its
brand as a trusted provider of relevant insights.

AngelouEconomics. Founded by Angelos Angelou in 1995, Austin-based AngelouEconomics
specializes in economic development and site selection strategies. Its clients
include governmental entities focused on growth and corporations trying to
determine the best locations for new offices, plants and facilities. It also
conducts economic impact studies (looking at, for instance, the potential impact
of green technology investments in
Texas).
One thing that sets this firm apart is its prolific research and analysis, much
of which is presented at events, published on the web and cited in
forward-looking articles.

Angelou, who worked for the
Austin Chamber of Commerce before starting his own firm, is actively sought out
for his views on development trends and opportunities. One of his company’s
projects was a development plan for
Winston-Salem,
North Carolina. The firm’s work built
on the region’s strengths in design including custom computer programming,
engineering services, interior design, film and video production and medical
device manufacturing. By publishing its study and making it accessible online,
the firm attracted interest in not only its own capabilities but the
possibilities of the region. “We took a depressed community and gave them a
platform for optimism based on being leaders in the design industry,” Angelou
says.

The company’s marketing has
been fueled by articles and reports covering everything from economic
development marketing and attracting the “creative class” to green technology
and pharmaceutical industry site selection. Angelou also attracts many
Austin area business
people each year for his annual forecast, an event designed to present the key
economic and technology trends that are influencing development in the region.
By leading with ideas and presenting them in many forums, AngelouEconomics has
risen to become one of the leading firms in its field.

Moody, Famiglietti & Andronico (MFA). This Boston-area CPA firm has
differentiated itself in the crowded accounting field through its own brand of
thought leadership. Spend some time on the firm’s Web site and you’ll observe
an array of industry articles, a blog that covers key trends in accounting, webcasts
and audiocasts, and a speaker’s bureau with experts who can tackle dozens of
different issues. By actively making its partners and team members available
for events and press quotes, the firm demonstrates a hallmark of thought
leaders: a commitment to achieving greater visibility.

The firm has even dedicated
a section of its Web site to thought leadership and labeled it as such. Site visitors
can read managing partner Carl Famiglietti’s views on how CFOs can control
audit costs or learn partner Will Andronico’s perspectives on how to deal with
fair value accounting. Webcasts address everything from the implications of new
FASB accounting standards to achieving compliance with the Massachusetts
Personal Data Security Law. For some of these resources, visitors must fill out
a request form, helping to generate new leads for the firm.

While the MFA Business
Insights blog enables the firm to present high level trends and important news
items, the firm also encourages visitors to subscribe to “MFA Alerts and
Insights,” which provides timely alerts on tax and accounting issues. Clearly,
the firm is taking active steps to remain in the peripheral – if not immediate
– vision of its clients and prospects. That’s another characteristic of
successful thought leadership.

Pullman and Comley.
With offices in 
Connecticut and New York, this law firm
is organized into seven practice areas including Business Enterprises, Health
Care, Litigation, Property Valuation, Public & Commercial Finance, Real
Estate and Trusts & Estates. While the firm has raised its profile with
insightful journal articles and consistently reaches out to its clients with
content-rich newsletters, it’s one of the firm’s partners, Daniel Schwartz, who
is most vividly making the case for thought leadership.

Schwartz is behind the
Connecticut Employment Law Blog, which has become a powerful vehicle for branding
himself (and by extension, his firm) in the field of employment law. He
explains that, in the past, marketing his practice had “always seemed like work
and there was nothing enjoyable about it.” He wasn’t interested in cultivating
the media or playing golf with prospective clients. However, he discovered that
he did enjoy sharing his perspectives about employment law in writing.
Schwartz’s blog, which he launched in 2007, has since proved to be phenomenally
successful.

He maintains the blog has
“raised my profile in the field” and led to “a substantive amount of billable
work.” The blog, which has generated 600,000 hits, has attracted extensive media
attention and made him the go-to expert in his chosen field. It also ranks well
on all sorts of relevant search terms.
  “I
am no more of an expert in employment law than I was two years ago, but Google
thinks I am,” Schwartz says. “Now people know about the blog and read it.”
That’s differentiated him from other employment attorneys while enriching his
personal network and opening up new business opportunities. As he sees it, “the
value of keeping your name in front of people cannot be underestimated.”

As such examples
demonstrate, professional services firms now have an opportunity to brand their
own ideas and expertise. The media necessary to produce these insights and
present them cost-effectively is now widely available
. While the investment of
time required to become a true thought leader may be considerable, there is
simply no better way in this era to market one’s expertise and generate new
business.

The question now revolves
around action.
Will your firm seize the moment and make the investments
necessary to become a thought leader? If you hope to thrive in an increasingly
crowded and competitive field, then you know the answer
.