The second episode in a two-part series on exceptional thought leadership marketers. Learn about the other four (out of seven) capabilities of the best thought leadership marketers based on Rattleback’s recent research study with Bloom Group.
About the Episode
This is the second episode in a two-part series on what it takes to be a great thought leadership marketer. The content for this episode is based on Rattleback’s recent study with Bloom Group, which identifies seven capabilities of exceptional thought leadership marketers. In the first episode, Jason and Jeff discussed the first three capabilities that came out of the study:
– Patient Champions
– Disciplined Navigators
In this episode, Jason and Jeff talk about the remaining four capabilities:
– Argument Shapers
– Audience Builders
– Digital Enlighteners
– Sales Accelerators
Jason has also shared bits and pieces of the research in other past episodes:
You can learn about all seven capabilities in the full research study, published on the Profiting from Thought Leadership conference website.
Jason Mlicki: Okay so Jeff, last time we talked, we left our listeners on a bit of a cliff hanger in that we had taken them through three of the seven capabilities of exceptional thought leadership marketers. And this was deriving from the research that we did in partnership with Bloom Group late last year. And we left them at capability number four. So we’ve sort of left them in the lurch. So my goal today, or I think what we were hoping to talk about today is these last four capabilities, and sort of tie a nice bow on top of this for our listeners if at all possible. So how’s that sound to you?
Jeff McKay: It’s a bow tying ceremony.
Jason Mlicki: E. Gordon Gee would be proud. No one knows who that is, but anyway. All right, so keep away number four is this capability of argument shapers. And really this capability is one that is really all about the skills of the idea developers in your firm. And I’ll do my best to share some words that Bob Buday our business partner on this research study always like to say which is that the thought leadership marketers on your team, the folks that are tasked with taking your big compelling ideas, and delivering them into the market should not be stenographers, they should not be ghost writers, they should be argument shapers.
The central idea to this is that their job is to develop a compelling argument, and to help the subject matter expert recognize when the argument they’re making is insufficient, or it’s weak. And so their job isn’t necessarily to be the subject matter expert, it’s to shape the thinking of the subject matter expert. And what the research says about this is that exceptional thought leadership marketers just value the inherent attributes and skills that are required to do that more than their peers. And they’re obviously just better at getting those skills. And the specific skills that I’m speaking of in this particular regard is interpersonal skills, and subject matter knowledge. So it’s sort of identifying idea developers that have some working knowledge of the topic at hand, and then have the ability to work interpersonally with the subject matter expert, in a way that they’re sort of delicately pushing back when needed, and they’re not getting steam rolled all the time by the expert.
And the leaders value those skills more and they have them more, which is probably the more critical piece of all that I suppose.
Jeff McKay: I think that’s an important point. I’ve seen that in the firms that I’ve worked in as well. And the skills are very complimentary. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve seen it play out in real life in developing thought leadership that really stands out in the market. I think that subject matter experts often fall in love with their own ideas, and solutions. And we’ve talked about that multiple times. And having this voice, that pushes back on that self love, and keeps saying why is this relevant to our client, how is this any different than what’s already being said? How does this really help? Is such an important skill. I think most marketers just take what so called subject matter experts say, is gospel. And I think given how important, and you’ve done some really good writing on this, around how who says you’re a thought leader, and who says you’re not in terms SEO.
And being able to structure an argument in the white space that exists, in the market, not just in the minds of people, but also in that white space that is Google controlled search results. And this is a really important skill, to make thought leadership stand out. So it can actually be found. I think it’s really important.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, you know the interesting thing looking back at the research data as we’re talking, again, we compare leaders and followers in this study. So the best with the worst. And the interesting thing to me is that the best sort of place equal emphasis, equal importance on those interpersonal and subject knowledge skills that are critical to developing and shaping great ideas. They pace equal weight on that as they do just on raw writing skills. And firms that aren’t successful there’s a mismatch there. They’re more focused on getting writing skills, and less focused on the other. I just think that’s really interesting. This idea that the person that you’re tasking with shaping and developing and publishing the ideas of your experts … I’m not saying you’re putting less emphasis on their writing ability, but you don’t see that as the most critical skill.
That to me was kinda what jumped out that I thought was really important for listeners to understand, was that you don’t necessarily need this person to be C.S. Lewis, you need them to be good writers that know how to interface the subject matter experts. And that skill is a little bit off the mark if you’re just focused entirely on technical writing skills. Technical is the wrong word but-
Jeff McKay: No technical is the right word. I’ve seen this in those organizations that don’t do it well, they have a writer or editor who is pedantic, in terms of, here’s how it has to be. And it becomes so rigid, and you’re fighting over comma placements and verb or adjectives instead of the idea as a whole. Instead of the story as a whole.
Jason Mlicki: Yes.
Jeff McKay: There’s a big difference between those two. It gets to what I say in terms of design, it’s goal should be help people understand, not to just be pretty. And not that those two are mutually exclusive, as we’ve talked about quite a bit.
Jason Mlicki: You finally learned. You finally listened and learned, and processed new information, new insight, that things can be beautiful and compelling together.
Jeff McKay: Yes.
Jason Mlicki: I am so proud of you today, this is a momentous moment for you. We need to mark this date down.
Jeff McKay: And we’ll have that edited out.
Jason Mlicki: Wayne that’s never edit it out, ever. Okay, so let’s go to capability five in the interest of time. So capability five, we call it the audience builders for a reason. And of course, it’s really just all about scaling audience around your thinking. And there’s a lot in this, so I’ll do my best to sort of cut across it at a high level first. ‘Cause the central issue on this is just that obviously as you might expect, exceptional thought leadership marketers know how to build an audience. And they leverage sort of multiple different formats of media to make that happen. And I’ll just highlight some of the things that are in the research that I think are most critical. The first is I would say that they put a bigger emphasis on earned media. And by that we mean they’re just more likely to make significant efforts to get their thinking published in prestigious places. So either they’re publishing a book, and they’re anchoring that in their thought leadership programs. They’re publishing in highly sought after prestigious publications like HBR or industry journals. They’re doing things that enable them to reach audiences that they can’t reach on their own, while also conferring credibility on their thinking as well.
The second thing in this category of audience builders is that the exceptional thought leadership marketers are just further along on their maturity curve, and moving from lean in content to lean back content. And what we mean by that is really just sort of active to passive consumption. The recognition, not executives daily lives are as busy as everybody else’s. And they are definitely looking for more ways to learn, and more ways to interact with thought leadership content. Meaning, they’re shifting away from long form white papers, towards shorter form video content, audio content, multimedia content, interactive content. Not saying that the long form content is dead or should go away, ’cause obviously they’re publishing books simultaneously. And we’ve talked on this podcast about how senior leaders still read, and I still feel strongly that senior leaders read books heavily. But the recognition, that media landscape is changing, and they’re out in front of it. And they’re investing sort of at the other end of the continuum, in a very strategic way.
So I’ll stop there and let you comment, because I don’t wanna just keep going. There’s really a lot of data in that capability number five, the audience builders that we could talk about all day. But we don’t have all day, so.
Jeff McKay: I think that this part of the research is really a gem. I think the research from top to bottom is excellent stuff. But if you only take one thing away, this model, and the way you’re talking about lean in, lean back content is exceptional. I really, really like that metaphor. It’s quite visual, but it’s meaningful. And I’ve seen this throughout my career as well. But really, recently, from some of the big firms, McKinsey introduced their, is it called Five Fifty?
Jason Mlicki: The Five Fifty.
Jeff McKay: Five Fifty, and Accenture has something like that as well, that are great examples. But this really isn’t just some professional services benchmarking report, say, “Hey you have to do more video.” That’s not what this is saying. What this is saying is, you need a balanced portfolio. A smorgasbord of distribution channels, and content forms, to meet the needs of your constituents. And I developed a model like this many years ago based on speed to market and volume and personalization. And you’re getting that here, but there’s a certain form for a certain level of issue, or information distribution.
And I experienced this, oh god, I experienced this regularly in my life. I got to YouTube University all the time to repair things around my house. And when you do a search on how to fix something, I always go to the three minute videos. I don’t go to the 60 seconds, ’cause I know there can’t be enough in there, substance. And I don’t wanna spend 30 minutes learning how to replace some gasket or take something apart, it can’t be that difficult.
So what this tells me is, make it meaningful, make it concise, make it clear based on the level and complexity of what you’re dealing with. And then drive to all the other relevant areas based on the interest of the people.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, and the framework that we use in there that you referenced is the thought leadership content continuum, is what we’ve called it. And the idea of the continuum is pretty simple. It’s just this idea that it’s a progression, and there’s a relationship between all these assets. If there’s one word in the content marketing universe that I would love to destroy is repurposing. I think repurposing is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. Because it’s not about repurposing the content, it’s about understanding the progression. And that’s what McKinsey did so well with the Five Fifty. Was that they made the progression very direct. They said, “Give me five minutes of your time, and I’ll give you a synopsis of this thinking. And at the end of five minutes, you can decide if you wanna give me 50 more.” And that’s the idea of the progression. Is that idea that if you’re really gonna publish something thoughtful on a really big heady topic, you’re going to need an hour or more of time of the executive for them to really process it and understand it and figure out what to do with it.
But they’re not gonna give you an hour right off the bat, without tempering the risk associated with going into that hour. So when you give them that three minute video, what you’re doing is you’re reducing the risk associated with giving you the hour. And it’s just all part of this continuum. And so yes the relationship to me is what’s critical. ‘Cause it’s not, let’s just repurpose this as many ways as we possible can to connect with people based on how they learn. That’s not how it should work at all, it’s all about the progression.
Jeff McKay: So like I said, if you only take one thing away, this is both strategic and tactical importance here, I think.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, no, thank you I appreciate that.
Jeff McKay: So good job Bob Buday.
Jason Mlicki: Oh boy. All right, so the capability six is digital enlighteners. And that was really funny by the way. You’re a funny guy. Capability six is digital enlighteners. And this is really all about just the refrain that you hear all over the place of being digital first. This is probably where the data is most stark in terms of contrast, in terms of the firms that are really out in front of this that are just getting exceptional outcomes, from their thought leadership marketers, are just way more digital than all their peers, and certainly, particularly the bottom category of this research study.
And I’ll highlight just a couple of things in here that I find really interesting. Probably the first one that I find interesting is just that leaders, the digital enlighteners, see their website as their most valuable marketing asset, period. There’s not question in that regard, and other firms are sort of on the fence about that. I think they’re still struggling to figure out how the web fits into their greater client attraction efforts. The best of the best are just like, this is our central marketing asset, and there’s so many reasons it’s our central marketing asset, and it’s our most critical marketing asset.
I would say the other piece of this, so there’s a mindset piece, right? That they view the web as critical. And then there’s what I would call a behaviors piece, which is that they look at the web with a different lens. They view the web as both the pliable medium it is, so they’re much more likely to be investing in sort of what I like to call continuous improvements. This idea that the website is not a project, the website is this living, breathing entity that we constantly need to invest in, and constantly look at how we make it smarter and better, and more effective at guiding our clients from learning to vetting into discussion. And they put a lot of thought into that.
Jeff McKay: Say that again, because that part about how the leaders look at a website, or as I prefer to call it digital platform. Because I think that’s critical for, maybe not the marketers, but the partners and SMEs to hear. They may say, “Oh yeah, I get that,” but I don’t think they necessarily do.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah.
Jeff McKay: Do you understand what I’m saying?
Jason Mlicki: Yeah.
Jeff McKay: It’s the point that the website-
Jason Mlicki: I understand what you’re saying.
Jeff McKay: The website is not a project that gets updated every four years for a refresh.
Jason Mlicki: Correct.
Jeff McKay: It’s a living breathing thing that is constantly in flux and adapting and changing everyday. And the bigger the firm you have, the more complex that is, in your processes of approvals and changes needs to have rigor to it, but it has to enable it. You can’t wait a month of process to change something.
Jason Mlicki: Well, yeah.
Jeff McKay: I mean it’s ridiculous.
Jason Mlicki: And the web is the most fluid medium ever invented, right? And I’ll just give a story real quick, and maybe this will help partners understand what we’re both trying to say here. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been part of web projects with firms. Where we’re building a website on behalf of a firm and the site gets stuck in neutral for extended periods of time. And usually what they’re hemming and hawing over during that extended period of time is language. It’s messaging about the firm, messaging about solutions, messaging about practice lines. And they’ll sit on it for months on end, and at the end of those months, they will have made minor tweaks to 5% of the language, and now they’re ready to publish.
And that’s a huge mistake. The better strategy would have been publish a draft one, edit it, refine it, improve it, and then change it. Do can that any time you want. That is the web, right? And so I don’t wanna bore our listeners too much, but it’s just there’s a lot of partners that bring an old print mindset to a fluid, interactive medium. And it hurts them all over the place. That’s one place it hurts them, it hurts them in that they’re not iterating and improving their web property, or they’re looking at this one moment in time. I’m gonna give this website, or whatever you wanna call it, I’m gonna give it my attention for the next six months to really focus with the marketer on building it the way I want it, and then I’m gonna walk away, and never touch it again, and expect it to just deliver outcomes to me.
That’s like calling up a client and having a conversation with them, and then ignoring them for 12 months, and then being shocked when they don’t hire you again, right? It’s the exact same thing. That’s just now how the digital enlighteners operate, right? They sort of do the opposite of all this. They’ve very thoughtful about planning the buyer’s journey, the customer experience, that guides the client from learning to vetting, and into discussion through the web platform. And then they’re very, they take control of that, and they invest in improving it all the time. They’re looking at it regularly, and saying how do I make this work better. That’s the wrap of the research in a nutshell I guess. And there’s four or five tiers of data describing all of those activities.
Jeff McKay: When you look at content marketing for all of its silliness, the real value of it is what you just described in describing digital enlighteners, and audience builders in the type of content continuum is the content has a purpose, and that purpose is to answer the questions that prospects have along the buyer’s journey.
Jason Mlicki: Correct.
Jeff McKay: And if it’s not doing that at the time and place, in the form they want, they’re gonna bail. Because there are a lot of other firms out there that are doing that. When people are buying our services, they don’t wanna waste time educating themselves and sorting through your difficult to understand materials. They just want an answer, and they’re gonna make quick decisions because they have day jobs. They have day jobs, so let’s get on with it.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, it’s interesting because there’s a really interesting trap that firms find themselves in as it relates to web publishing. And interesting trap is this, if you care about search engine visibility, and you want to get found through Google, you need a steady diet of useful topical content, right? Yet your buyer wants clarity in the journey. Like you said, our buying model, our four stage buying model that we’ve talked about on this podcast, is rooted in the questions the client’s asking themselves along their buying journey. And they really wanna find those answers as quickly as they can, and they would like to have foundational content and at each days it’s gonna answer all those questions to the best of their ability.
So in a way, the marketer is tasked with a client that wants simplicity, yet to get found there’s an expectation of volume. So they’re constantly battling volume and simplicity in the web experience. And to me, that intersection is where the audience builders and digital enlighteners live. They recognize that in order to deliver on those two promises, they have to be constantly looking at how they improve the experience. They have to be constantly mindful of how they’re shaping the buying journey, and how they’re controlling it and guiding it, and that it’s a unified experience. And so it’s a really interesting place to operate, and just the best of the best are just doing those things better. They have the right mindset, and they have the right behaviors to back it up, which is where the critical findings in this section of the research I would say.
Jeff McKay: Most firms, professional services firms, get stuck in stage one, or stage two of the buyer’s journey, because they’re too focused on demand generation and brand building, and or lead gen.
Jason Mlicki: Can I ask a clarifying question real quick? When you say stuck, do you mean their clients are stuck in that phase of the journey when consuming their marketing? Or do you mean that the marketing team is stuck, what do you mean by stuck?
Jeff McKay: The marketing team is investing too much time, money and effort in those first couple of stages, building awareness of a problem, and maybe some general understanding of possible solutions, or the firm’s thinking around a given issue. But once you’re in that kind of limited set of potential firms that could solve a problem, the types of questions that are asked are totally different. They move from the issue into things about the firm and the process of solving that issue, and working with the firm, and they’re not thought leadership focused perse, although thought leadership may inform your process and approach and things like that. But there’s a totally different set of questions that are being asked. And if you want to help the firm achieve scale, you need to be answering those questions, so partners and business developers aren’t having to answer all those questions from scratch all the time.
I guess all I’m saying is, don’t get stuck at the front end of the buyer’s journey, because you could be adding a lot more value in answering the questions that prospects have in making a decision to use or not use your firm.
Jason Mlicki: And if you go back to the four stages of buying, that podcast that we did together, and the model we used for that, the way we always frame it is that stage one is learning, and that maps to thought leadership content. Stage two, is vetting, and that maps to marketing content. And the difference between thought leadership content and marketing content, of course as you just said, is thought leadership content is educational, insightful, it’s teaching me about the issues that I’m struggling with. Marketing content is more about the firm. It’s this is our processes and methodologies, here are proven case studies that show how we work. It’s the actual messaging of the various practices or solution offerings in a way that’s understandable. And so it’s the stuff that gets the buyer over the hump to initiate a conversation. And like you said, lower the burden on the business development team, to have that dialog that can be started online. So to me that whole notion, I know we’ve talked about this, the whole notion of 54% of the buyer’s journey occurs online. That’s the part you wanna take control of, is the learning and vetting stages.
We’re running a little bit long, as usual. But there is a seventh capability. We’ve talked about it before, so we don’t have to spend as much time on it, but the seventh capability is sales accelerators. And we talked about this in our podcast on sales enablement. And in the effort of wrapping up today’s episode, I guess the one piece of information I’ll share on this, and then we can talk about it a little bit if you want to, is just this idea that the leaders, the exceptional thought leadership marketers recognize that their ability to educate and inform their sales team, however they frame that, on the thought leadership that they’re producing, is more critical to success than the content itself. It’s a razor thin hair between those two for them, but it’s a recognition that our ability to activate is more critical than us getting to some golden nugget that no one’s ever found. Although, that’s pretty important too.
So I just thought that that was really interesting. That the conventional wisdom, at least for a lot of thought leadership marketers I think is that it’s all about the most compelling idea, presented the best way possible. And our research says that it’s activation of that idea that’s more critical, so.
Jeff McKay: This is part of what I was getting to in my last comments. Again, this kinda goes back to the argument shapers capability as well. Is it’s contextualizing the thought leadership in making it relevant in those one on one interactions. Hey Mr. Prospect, here’s our conclusions that we found, here is what it means to you, and to your function, and to your firm, and your competitive position make it relevant to them.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah.
Jeff McKay: And that’s always going to happen, primarily in a sales context. So equipping the sales people with, and I just used this word, and it’s always been my mantra is create a smorgasbord of materials, stories that support that messaging that work for the way a certain business developer or partner wants to sell. Somebody is going to rely heavily on a white paper, or others are going to rely heavily on case studies. Some will just take the stories, and just weave those in. But those are the important elements that need to be explained, and put into context for the sales people. And I think what works really well, at least I’ve seen this, is when you’re getting the sales people equipped of doing it as a group, not one on one.
Because once you kinda light the fuse, then the business developers start sharing their own stories and collaborating and cross pollinating and making those stories even stronger. So I really like the sales accelerators as well. And I think most marketers, as we’ve talked before, don’t enable, they support.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, the interesting piece of this all in general on the sales accelerators side, is it just goes back to your notion of client experience that we’ve talked about, and this idea that this is about marketing and business involvement alignment. And it is about making sure that the compelling thinking that I’m reading from the firm, when I start the conversation, whoever I start that conversation with can extend it. Understands what’s in the thinking, and can talk about it and then talk about how the solutions fit with it. And frequently that doesn’t happen, the business developer is maybe not entirely informed of the thought leadership. Maybe they don’t even know it’s out there. There’s a whole subset of the research of firms that they don’t even inform their sales people that they’ve published anything.
So if someone calls them about it, they have no idea what it is, right? They’re completely in shock. What did you read?
Jeff McKay: Yeah.
Jason Mlicki: I don’t know what that’s about, but let me tell you about this widget we have over here, right?
Jeff McKay: And I find there’s kind of two types of business developers, those that wanna know the latest and the greatest that the firm’s released, because they’ll think about who they can take it to. And then there’s those that don’t care because they’re chasing what they can kill today, and oh, I’ll find that if I need it.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah.
Jeff McKay: Later on. And I don’t think either one of those is singularly the best, it needs to be a combination of the two. So I think that’s something that our listeners probably should make sure that they’re doing. Yet and here’s how you can tell if you’re doing it or you’re not doing it. Maybe this is unfair to marketers, but if you use a language we and they, in talking about sales and marketing, you’re probably not doing this.
Jason Mlicki: You probably have a problem.
Jeff McKay: Or if you’ve uttered the word, it’s not my job, you’re probably not doing it. So that language is existing in your marketing group, you have room for improvement.
Jason Mlicki: Well those are great wise words to wrap on. So we stayed beyond our welcome, we should wrap it up today. So thanks for taking the time to go with me on the journey of these seven capabilities. I’m sorry it took two full episodes to do it. But I enjoyed it, and I hope you did as well. And I hope our listeners got a lot of value out of it. In the show notes we’ll post a link out to the full research study, for those who want to look at the data.
Jeff McKay: Go to it, go read it, and share it. Actually put a training together in your firm to share these findings. Because they’re that useful.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah.
Jeff McKay: Plus they have cute interactive graphics, like the leaders use. So get out there and use it.
Jason Mlicki: And those interactive graphics improve comprehension we hope, as well as look beautiful.
Jeff McKay: That’s right.
Jason Mlicki: So all right man, another 20 minutes gone. Thanks for spending the time with me.
Jeff McKay: My pleasure, make sure you tell Bob Buday good job.
Jason Mlicki: I will, thanks Jeff.
Jeff McKay: See ya Jason.