Patience, Discipline and Truth-Seeking: Critical Capabilities of the Best Thought Leadership Marketers
Part 1 of a two-part series on exceptional thought leadership marketers. In this episode, Jason shares three of the seven capabilities of the best thought leadership marketers based on Rattleback’s recent research study with Bloom Group.
About the Episode
What does it take to be great at thought leadership marketing? Rattleback recently released a study in partnership with Bloom Group that identifies seven capabilities of exceptional thought leadership marketers. A little bit about the study—we surveyed 312 B2B marketers in North America with 35 questions and worked with a research partner, Phronesis Partners, to help build the survey list. Respondents also came from our email marketing lists and our social media lists. From the 35 questions, we dissected what the thought leadership marketing leaders do differently, and we discerned that there were really seven capabilities that the leaders had.
Jason has shared bits and pieces of the research in past episodes:
In this two-part series, Jason shares all seven dimensions and talks in depth about each one. In this first episode, Jason shares three of the seven capabilities:
– Patient Champions
– Disciplined Navigators
You can learn about all seven capabilities in the full research study. And be sure to tune in for next week’s episode (Part 2), when we’ll cover the remaining four capabilities.
Jason Mlicki: So Jeff, I have a confession.
Jeff McKay: Yes, Jason.
Jason Mlicki: I started listening to our podcast for the first time in the last month and a half or so. I rarely watche things at times, right? Videos of me speaking or … So for me to actually start listening to our own product was a little bit uncomfortable at first, but so here’s the thing I’ve discovered is you know what, I have some pretty good stuff to say.
Jeff McKay: Yes, you do. For our listeners, it’s important to note that you don’t listen to it because you don’t like your voice.
Jason Mlicki: Correct.
Jeff McKay: Not because it’s not great content and a lot of fun.
Jason Mlicki: You are absolutely correct. I have been listening and I’ve actually been really enjoying listening, I guess sort of almost as a third party out of body experience, listening to this conversation unfold. A lot of times, as you know, we record and then they publish a little later and so sometimes the nuance of the conversation is forgotten. And so I sort of, it’s like re-enlightening me. And occasionally I learn from you as well.
No, in all seriousness, the reason I bring this up is that, so the topic we’re going to cover it today is our recent research on the Seven Capabilities of Exceptional Thought Leadership Marketers research that we’ve done with the Bloom Group and Bob Buday and the research release that just came out about three or four weeks ago. And the reason I bring it up is because there’s seven capabilities that we’ve discerned from our work, but we’ve talked about pieces and parts of these in past episodes.
So as we lean into this, I wanted to just clarify that for our listeners. So there’s seven capabilities. And the first one that I’m going to talk about this notion of patient champions is something we covered in an episode back in October in which we talked about the research as it was coming together at that point. And then the seventh one, sales accelerators we also talked about in a recent podcast in March on sales enablement. So I say that only just to say that we’ve touched on some of these topics, but now we’re going to try to bring them all together across all seven dimensions at once. So you want to do that?
Jeff McKay: It sounds like a plan. These are seven capabilities, not seven habits, right?
Jason Mlicki: Correct. Definitely not seven habits. We might get trademark infringement if we used habits, would’t we?
Jeff McKay: Yes, I think you would. And that would be a bad marketing decision anyway, wouldn’t it?
Jason Mlicki: They would be on the stupid list.
Jeff McKay: You would be on the stupid list. Do not co-op somebody else’s moniker for thought leadership.
Jason Mlicki: Absolutely not.
Jeff McKay: All right, so let’s get in. I’m not patient and I want to be a patient champion. So let’s get into a quick synopsis of that one. We can kind of move on to the others. And go on a little more in depth to those.
Jason Mlicki: Before I do that, let me step back. It’s usually your job but I’m going to step back with that and I just want to clarify the research that was done and how we did it. So just to give clarity on what we did. So, so Bob and I have done this type of research now and, our listeners have heard me talk about this, but this is the third or fourth study we’ve done together on studying really what the best thought leadership marketers do differently than the rest. This particular study had about 35 questions, we surveyed 312 B2B marketers in North America. We worked with a research partner named Phronesis Partners to help us build the survey list. And then respondents also came from our email marketing lists and our social media lists. There’s probably some listeners that are participating in the study, right?
Then what we did with that is we basically took the 35 questions. We dissected what the leaders do differently, the folks that are having the best outcomes from the thought leadership marketing, and we discerned that there were really seven capabilities and then we framed it out as those. So questions on that before I jump into the patient champions?
Jeff McKay: Let’s jump into the patient champions.
Jason Mlicki: All right, so we’ve talked about this previously, so I won’t spend as much time on this, but essentially the gist of the patient champions is that what we took away from the research finding was that leaders just are able to get big commitment from the top of the organization. So they get senior leadership buy in into thought leadership. We have found they operate along the same timelines that senior executives tend to operate on. So while a lot of marketers find themselves operating in months and quarters, most CEOs are operating in years and decades or great CEOs are operating in years and decades. Right? And so the best thought leadership marketers sort of align their point of view with the needs of the senior leadership.
And so one of the things we’ve talked about in the past is that just there’s just a higher likelihood if you’re going to be exceptional at thought leadership marketing, that you’ve been at this for a little bit longer. So the likelihood that you’ve been at this for somewhere between three and 10 years is higher if you’re great at this than it is if you’re average or below average at this.
Jeff McKay: The key on this one is that you have to approach thought leadership strategy just like you do business strategy. You have to make strategic choices. You have to make strategic investments, you have to trim the sails if you will, as you go. But you have to be disciplined and stay the course because there are no instantaneous ideas. I think most of us who see a big idea pop out somewhere think that that it was like an overnight success, but oftentimes it’s not at all. Brené Brown who hopped on the scene out of nowhere after a TED video and everyone’s like, she’s an overnight sensation. That woman had been pounding it for decades, doing hard fought one on one interviews with people all over the world, talking to anybody that would talk to her and go in depth. But people look at that and they’re like, “Oh, she’s an overnight sensation.” No, she had been working on that a long time.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, I always tell our clients, it’s that old analogy of pushing a snowball right? In the beginning the snowball was tiny and it’s small and you’re starting to kind of build it up and then as you push it, it gets bigger and bigger and bigger and eventually you’re pushing it up the hill and maybe you’ll get over the hill and you’ll push it and then it will roll on its own a little bit. And the big marketplace successes, I love the story you shared are we see them at that massive snowball stage and we don’t see them at kernel stage. It’s funny, there’s a great children’s book actually called, What Do You Do With an Idea That is so Beautifully Illustrated? It’s almost a great read for this idea. Just this very simple idea of where ideas come from and how they sort of blossom over time. Anyway, but I really liked your analogy, thought leadership strategy is more like business strategy and that’s a really, really smart way of putting it.
Jeff McKay: All right. Patient champions for more on that. We have an earlier podcast and we’ll put a link to that podcast in the show notes for you. So number two, discipline navigators. What I loved about this one is a description you and Bob gave it about leaders and thought leadership relentlessly stay in their lanes. Say more about that.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, and this is really one of Bob’s big contentions and it has been as long as I’ve known him, is just that the notion that we have to be incredibly clear on the topics we want to own and we have to be incredibly clear on what we will publish and what we won’t publish. And that’s both a function of the things we’re going to write about and a function of what we constitute quality to be. So when you look at this, and this is the really interesting one I think is that the leaders, the discipline navigators, they just have very explicit, documented and shared quality standards and they enforced them regularly. And we’ve even found that, well first they empower marketers to enforce those quality standards. So marketers have the right to tell a partner, “No, I’m not going to publish this because it doesn’t meet our expectations for quality.”
And then if for whatever reason that partner will not accept marketing’s decision, they are empowered to basically bring in a senior business leader and the senior business leader will step in and say, “Hey no, if this doesn’t meet our quality standards, we are not going to publish this.” And so it’s sort of that combination both of staying on topic all the time, not doing one offs in your stupid list, right? Making sure that the topics we’re going to own tend to go back into the practices and then making sure that we hold ourselves accountable to a certain level of quality before we publish. And leaders just do that way more. I mean there I mean look at the data. I mean the leaders are doing this, 80 to 90% of them are doing these things and other firms just aren’t doing these things.
Jeff McKay: And I think this is what separates thought leaders from thought leader marketers, thought leadership firms from content marketers. And we’ve talked about this on other podcasts as well. Thought leadership is the lifeblood of professional services firms, not content. And if your firm has a content marketing mindset instead of a thought leadership mindset, you’re going to lose. And I think the concept of quality and quality can be an overused word and it has different meanings to different people. But quality thinking not content makes a such a huge difference and you even highlight in your study that not only do these firms focus on producing high end thought leadership, they make sure that they don’t put out low quality content. And that’s a rigor that I think most firms miss because they feel compelled to get a post out on social media. It’s Tuesday morning at nine o’clock that’s our high traffic time on this social media channel, we need something or whatever that thinking is, I’m making that up. But-
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, no.
Jeff McKay: And they compromise and they put something out there that’s just not good and it erodes the brand.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. And we’ve done past studies of buyers, right? Consumers of thought leadership in this case, buyers of consulting services. And we just straight up asked that question, what happens when you know you consume content that you’ve perceived to be of low quality. And bluntly the answer was that their opinion of the reputation of the firm that published it goes down. So that’s a fairly obvious thing but it’s helpful to we have the data to back it up to say yes that buyers say this directly and we’ve all experienced it. Right? How often do you see a headline for an article you want to read and then you open the article and the article either doesn’t really answer the question that it proposed to answer in the first place or it just doesn’t stand up to what you’d hoped and you’re let down and you may never go back to that firm again. Especially if it’s not a firm of really high regard that you already know and trust.
Jeff McKay: Yeah. Becomes click bait or a bait and switch. And I think a lot of the software companies do this, not all, not all, but a lot of the up starts put stuff out, and I would throw this into this category of low quality content is thought leadership positioned as thought leadership, but really it’s just a product brochure. Nothing as a buyer annoys me more than that. I don’t go back to those types of websites and marketers and I don’t think I’m alone in that regard because it wastes my time.
Jason Mlicki: Yes, they’re at the wrong point of the buying cycle. What they cease to understand is that when you’re in learning mode and you’re trying to figure out how to solve a problem or you’re trying to figure out how to pursue an opportunity when solutions or products or services enter that sphere too soon, it actually just gets in the way. You’re not ready for that yet. You’re still trying to understand the problem and how to solve it and sort of prematurely introducing a solution is not helpful to the buyer. So you’re failing, as a marketer you’re failing when you do that on multiple levels.
Jeff McKay: I know this theme plays out across all of these capabilities, Jason, but from a marketing perspective I think number one capability of patient champions and number two the disciplined navigators come together from a very tactical, but I would also argue strategic marketing capability and that is conversion rate optimization. And we’ll talk about this a little bit later when we get into talking about marketers as digital engineers, but as you monitor conversion rate around these, you’re going to learn a lot not just about titling and design of landing pages and stuff like that, but what’s working and what is not working in terms of the lane that you’re swimming in. And I’ve seen this myself and at Prudent Pedal I’ve tried to stay in my lane, you know from the strategy perspective because that’s my strength. The development of marketing organizations, high performance marketing and sales enablement and integration, that type of stuff. I can go really deep on a lot of different things like brand strategy and what have you, but I’ve made the disciplined choice to stay in that lane and it has paid dividends for me.
Sometimes you have to wander out to test the waters, but conversion rate optimization, you’re going to see what’s resonating very quickly with your audience. So I think those two kind of come together there, I’m rambling, but you know what I’m saying?
Jason Mlicki: Loosely. I mean I would argue that what I think you’re saying ultimately is that that’s a good metric to know whether or not you have quality because if you’re converting more people into your thinking, then that would imply that the quality of the content is there and that the trust is there and I do tend to agree with you. One of the things we look at, I was just doing this last night when I look at our clients’ sites, I like to look at the global conversion rate for the site and then I like to look underneath that global conversion rate and look at what are they converting on, not necessarily the asset, but what type of conversion, because we always set up multiple conversion types and one thing that when I see a site where we’re converting people but we’re not necessarily getting them to subscribe to a newsletter, let’s say, that concerns me because that tells me that well people don’t see enough value in our thinking in this client’s thinking let’s say or whatever to request more of it with some frequency and that would make me question content quality.
Is our content up to snuff or is what we have to say relevant? Is it in the right topical lane for the audience we’re trying to attract? And all of those things that you said. So I guess my takeaway from your comment was like it’s a good indicator to help you understand whether or not you’re staying disciplined enough and you’re narrowing in on the right topics and you’re holding yourself to quality standards.
Jeff McKay: Yeah.
Jason Mlicki: One point you made, I want to just comment is we purposely in the study anyway, we didn’t articulate what we meant by quality because your point, most firms have different centers of quality and now obviously we have our own rubrics on what we think quality is and a lot of those, you know Bob has developed and we certainly applied here at Rattleback. Usually there it’s a combination of clear problem definition, rigorous research surrounding that problem. And then some depth and proof that shows real world examples of solutions against that problem. Right? And so there’s some elements of that in that, but we didn’t necessarily articulate that in the research study on purpose because we felt like it really just, I guess what was alarming was how many firms really don’t have any quality guidelines.
And maybe more importantly if they do, they don’t publish them. So they don’t actually share them with anybody. They’re not doing any goal setting. That’s the other piece that’s sort of in disciplined navigators that we didn’t talk about is just that the disciplined navigator is much more likely to set business oriented goals for the thought leadership agenda and they’re more likely to hit those goals. And I have this belief in our agency and I’ve talked about it, I think you and I have talked about this before, it’s really simplistic idea, but it’s just this idea that when we set goals we are more likely to achieve them even if they’re goals we don’t control. And as crazy as that is.
So we’ll set thought leadership goals each year. And those goals are inclusive of the activities we’re going to do and the outcomes we hope we’ll get from those activities. And I can’t really control the outcomes. I can’t control how many people consume our content. I mean, yes I can influence the things that enable that, but I can’t actually control the number. So, but it’s still a goal yet we hit those numbers routinely. So just there’s something about the act of goal setting that leads to outcomes that you want. I can’t explain it, but we think it’s critical. So.
Jeff McKay: I agree. I think it is critical and that was well articulated. Alright, so number three, the best thought leadership marketers are true seekers.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. I love this one really. And it’s actually fairly simplistic it’s just this idea that, and we took this from at our 2018 event, we had Fidelity Investments at the event and one of their senior thought leadership marketers, Jeannie Thompson spoke, and she was just talking about how they’ve applied design thinking to their thought leadership agenda. And what she talked about was this idea of falling in love with a problem and rather than falling in love with the solution, which is what I see a lot of firms do when they’re marketing, as they fall in love with the solution and they see the need for the solution everywhere even an absence of the problem. And what I mean by all that is just this idea that the truth seeker falls in love with the problem and is willing to continuously invest in shedding new light on how to solve the problem without preconceived notion that their existing model for solving it is always right.
So they’re sort of on this constant quest, this constant journey to shed new light on how to solve the problem, which means that A, they’re investing in research. So the truth seeker is much more likely to invest in research. And then the second half of that is that the truth seeker is just much more rigorous in the way they design research studies, the way they analyze the findings and the way they involve subject matter experts in discerning what they mean. So they’re just bringing more rigor and all under the goal of finding truth. Really. What is the best way to do this thing? Whatever this thing is.
Jeff McKay: When you say research you mean primary research, right?
Jason Mlicki: We lump in both original primary research and secondary research in how we asked the question. The leaders, the truth seekers are more likely to leverage original primary research and less likely to rely exclusively on secondary research. Average performers, followers are more likely to do the inverse of that, to rely heavily on secondary research in the marketplace that’s not theirs as the backbone of their thought leadership work.
Jeff McKay: Doing primary research I know is expensive. I’m wondering if the report and the readout on these capabilities indicated anything about firm’s size in the ability to pay for the research first because I see you two separate things here. One is the ability to pay for primary research. The other is the capability to shape it and drive it. And those two go hand in hand. But I’m wondering if you have any thoughts because there may be people listening to this going, well, that’s great, but I don’t have that in my budget. How do I deal with that?
Jason Mlicki: We lumped original primary research into multiple types of research, right? So there’s survey research, which to your point is expensive if you’re going to try to drive analytical rigor against it, meaning that it’s going to hold up to some certain standard of care as it relates to a significance of findings, right? So you need a certain volume of respondents in order to get to a certain level of confidence in the findings that you have, right? We also lump in there what we call qualitative interviews so the idea of really getting outside of your subject matter experts who have an opinion on how the work that they do should be done and getting into actual clients, particularly clients that you don’t actually work with and asking them how they’ve done it, the ones that have done it really well. Now that type of research obviously is still expensive if you think about the sort of the brute time it takes to go find people who are really good at something and get them on the phone and really spend time with them.
But I would argue that that’s not necessarily a new hard cost that a firm has to absorb. That could just be a soft cost. It’s saying, well, whoever’s in charge of thought leadership here, a good chunk of their time is going to be spent trying to find examples of clients that are doing things exceptionally well, whether they’re in your client base or not. And then getting them on the phone to talk about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. And that’s part and parcel to the editorial development process. I’m personally not sold that original primary research has to be super expensive. I mean, we’ve done lots of research here on shoestring budgets.
Now, to your point, if you want that research to stand up to certain levels of confidence intervals let’s say, or you want to make sure that that sample size is in lock step with the total population of companies that you’re wanting to do business with. And you’re expecting sort of this academic level of care in terms of statistical significance that gets expensive fast. But that doesn’t mean you can’t go out in the marketplace and ask quick hitting questions, roll off 100 or 200, 300 responses and formulate an opinion on that and have something really compelling to say, does that make sense?
Jeff McKay: Yes, that makes a lot of sense. And one of the ways around us, at least for me and in some of the firms that I’ve had plenty of money to do this type of stuff, is to make the bang for the buck go even further, is to partner with another institution, whether that’s a university or a think tank. In addition to spreading the costs, you also get the halo effect of being associated with a bigger brand or a superior brand and in some cases. So I think there are ways around that, but it is important to understand that there are ways to play this game even if you don’t have big dollars to do primary research.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. And your point on partnership and obviously we do this research study and partnership with the Bloom Group and Bob Buday. And I do that for multiple reasons. One obviously is to share in the cost of development of the study, the cost of recruiting respondents right? Really it was really where the cost is. And then also it’s to share in the design of the study and the analysis of the study. So you’re just getting more subject matter experts with more diverse opinions. And so it’s sort of, I couldn’t do this study alone without Bob’s expertise and his guidance and partnership and framing out what we want to ask and have everyone ask it. And I don’t know if he would say the same thing, but I know he would definitely say he values having that partnership to work through it in the same regard. So there’s that added value of synergies that I guess is the business buzzword that would go with the partnership and research, right?
Jeff McKay: Yeah. I would suspect Bob would not sing the praises of the partnership with you. I don’t know why anybody would partner with you to do anything.
Jason Mlicki: I think that’s a great note to end this episode. Actually. In all seriousness, we do have to probably take an end of this episode anyway, so that’s a great way to end it, nobody ever partner with me on anything.
Jeff McKay: I hope our listeners know that we’re kidding. My wife always just have clarify that Jeff humor because nobody gets it. So we’re going to finish the rest of this list on the next episode.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, so we’re going to cliff hang, everybody will hit the next, well three of the next four in the next episode. And in the meantime if someone wants to download the research findings and really dig into this in more detail, I would just invite them to go to thoughtleadershipseminar.com and that’s where all the research findings are housed and of course we will also point to the research study from the Rattle and Pedal episode webpage. So thank you for starting this journey with me. Even if partnering with me in a podcast is a painful experience for you.
Jeff McKay: All right to the next painful get together.
Jason Mlicki: Right I’ll see ya.
Jeff McKay: See you buddy.