We asked over 300 B2B marketers…In this podcast, Jason shares high-level findings from Rattleback’s current and past research with Bloom Group into the characteristics of exceptional thought leadership marketers.
Reference: This podcast provides insight into research conducted by Rattleback and Bloom Group on the characteristics of exceptional thought leadership marketers.
Jason Mlicki: Hey Jeff. So I guess we are going to talk about thought leadership marketing today. Is that the gist?
Jeff McKay: Yes we are. But…
Jason Mlicki: There you go with the big but again. You always have the big but.
Jeff McKay: But it’s not just thought leadership marketing. It’s thought leadership which grants then marketing. And that’s an important difference.
Jason Mlicki: That’s an actually really interesting comment. So you are correct. It is thought leadership. So as you know I am freshly coming out of our annual event, Profiting From Thought Leadership. It’s in year three and it’s a big signature event that we created in partnership with Bob Buday at the Bloom Group. We bring in, subject matter experts from all kinds of firms. This year we had Salesforce. We had McKinsey. We bring in owners of channels, so Fast Company was there this year. Harvard Business Review Press was there. McGraw Hill was there and we just talk about best practices and developing thought leadership and taking it to market and then really talk about how to work with prestigious publications to get yourself published so obviously this is fresh in my mind.
Really, the goal of today’s talk, I think we framed it as the characteristics of the most successful thought leadership marketers but I guess maybe marketers shouldn’t be there. But really, the backbone of that is a bunch of research that Bob and I have been doing now for, or I’ve been doing with him for, this is our third year, since 2015. I know he’s been doing this type of research for maybe a decade, more. So he’s actually got a longer trace on some of these studies.
Jeff McKay: I think an important attribute, or a question to answer before we get started, is how are you and Bob defining success?
Jason Mlicki: Yeah that’s a really great question. So, historically we’ve always said that thought leadership, if it’s performing, should be generating leads and revenue for the business. So, Bob would make the argument and I would agree with him, that the marketer that says, or the practice leader that says, “This is really just about brand building and brand awareness and whether or not we get business from this is irrelevant.” We just don’t agree with that. We feel like, if you’ve got something compelling to say that’s meaningful and valuable, it’s going to shape the way the market thinks about an issue, that should be driving upside revenue and leads to your practice. Now, before I go further, did that answer your question?
Jeff McKay: Yes.
Jason Mlicki: Okay. Now the interesting thing about that is, that there’s a couple of layers to this research. To back up for a second, this is our third year of research on this. So at this point, we have now surveyed in excess of 500 B2B companies that practice thought leadership development and thought leadership marketing, with the big but, and we’ve also surveyed in excess of 1300 clients, so consumers of thought leadership over the course of the last three years. And really, all of that research has been about trying to understand how clients consume intellectual capital and how firms can use it more successfully to market and grow their practices. I say that because one of the things we did, not in this particular study most recently, but in previous studies was, we looked at objectives. So the central objective of the firm’s marketing efforts and while success equates to leads and revenue, objectives do not. So the firms that say, “Our objective is to generate leads and revenue” tend to be poorer performers than those that say, “Our objective is to educate and inform. To teach the marketplace”.
I say that because I don’t want to confuse objectives with what success looks like because it turns out they’re not the same.
Jeff McKay: Say that again. I think that was important.
Jason Mlicki: So the leads that come from the effort are the output of really a more pure objective and the pure objective is to say, “We want to really truly deeply understand our clients and the issues they face and we want to bring to them useful educational insight. Real new prospective that they can use to do whatever they do for a living, better.” And if we keep that central objective in everything we do as a thought leadership marketer, if we’re in the role of developing intellectual capital for a firm, we will be rewarded with leads and revenue. If we focus myopically on lead gen, we will be less well rewarded. So, it’s a really weird dichotomy, right? Success looks like leads and revenue but focus and objectives should not be on that. Does that make sense?
Jeff McKay: That makes perfect sense. Most people don’t think in those terms. I love the way that you articulated that. We could stop the podcast right now as far as I’m concerned.
Jason Mlicki: We good?
Jeff McKay: Yeah.
Jason Mlicki: We can call it a day.
Jeff McKay: That’s worth it’s weight in gold. I mean the takeaway from that is, it seems so simplistic but it’s just 180 degrees different in terms of what you look at, what you produce, how you deliver it, how you position around it, when you look at it from we want to understand our clients and help them, versus we want to generate leads or build our brand.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah.
Jeff McKay: And I think most people would say, “Well of course that’s what we’re doing”, but most people don’t act out that way. So it’s a very important distinction.
Jason Mlicki: Well you’re actually right and it’s interesting because … So McKinsey has been at our event the last two years as speakers, different people from different functions. So we’ve had editorial leaders, most recently we’ve had, this year Mark Staples came, who’s one of the editorial leaders for McKinsey Quarterly. The reason I’m telling this story, at McKinsey when they talk about this, their mindset on thought leadership in general is they don’t actually think of themselves as marketers. In fact, my understanding is, I could be wrong, that they don’t like to use the phrase marketing inside the business. They don’t like to think of themselves as marketing anything. They just like to think of it as, we’re trying to share with the world the things we’re learning from working with our clients so that other people can be successful with that insight. So it’s a very much kind of educational mindset that they’re bringing to the table and they’ve gone so far as to say, “We’re not really in the marketing role. That’s not what we do here”. I don’t know how many firms think that way and I’ve never worked at McKinsey so I don’t know what it’s really like inside the culture, but I do know that that’s how they talk about it externally.
Jeff McKay: Yes and the irony of that, is in and of itself, a marketing message and approach.
Jason Mlicki: That’s a good point.
Jeff McKay: When you go out of your way to make sure you don’t use the term marketing, then you are by very definition marketing and positioning your brand as a non-marketing brand.
Jason Mlicki: Are you implying that- There’s a woman, I don’t remember who this was, a few years ago who stopped, she didn’t want to promote brands and so she started tearing all the tags off of all of the clothes that she bought. So she’d buy these really expensive shirts and then tear the tags off so that she wouldn’t promote the brand. I was like, well you’re missing the point because you bought the shirt in the first place. If you really didn’t want to promote it you should have just bought something else. I don’t even remember who that was or where I read that but that’s one of those random stories. Anyway.
Jeff McKay: It’s like burning your Nike apparel.
Jason Mlicki: Yes, yes, yes. Exactly. Alright, so where I thought we’d go from here is, so one of the things we did with our research this year, so we’ve done this research now three times and this year we’ve got a much larger data set. So in the past we’ve done research inside the management consulting industry alone, this yeah we brought in the scope to look at really a whole bunch of different sectors of B2B, and we got over 300 respondents to the study. Then what we do is, we split them. We say okay, there’s 300 people that responded to this study now let’s look at, let’s take a slice that are leaders, take a slice that are followers and keep a slice that is in the middle, and let’s make comparisons between the best and the worst or however you want to think about it. Then we spend a lot of time, obviously analyzing the data, trying to figure out really what’s meaningful and what’s not. Really, what is in this data set that actually can inform anybody on things that are useful? And what is really just noise? Which is, after survey design, probably the second hardest thing.
Jeff McKay: Yes.
Jason Mlicki: So you want to hear some?
Jeff McKay: I most certainly do.
Jason Mlicki: So, let’s start with success. So, one of the things that is interesting is that in past studies, so again we’ve done a number of these studies, in past studies what we always did is we- because we feel like success looks like more leads, we always would measure. Well, we would ask the question, how many leads are you getting from your thought leadership efforts? Then we would normalize that. So we would take that and normalize that data against some revenue metric so that we could have an equal comparison. Every past study we’ve ever done, the most effective thought leadership marketers got the most leads and effectiveness. In this study it came out as a price premium. So rather than it being that they were getting more volume, I think it would be that they’re getting a higher quality lead profile. So if you’re really doing this right, you’re demanding a price premium. At least three quarters of the firms that are in that leadership bucket said so and that price premium could range anywhere from just a couple points up to 30, 40, 50 percent.
Jeff McKay: These types of firms, when you have a wide range like that, and I’m not sure if you could get down to this level of detail, but was there a wide range of profitability based on the professional service industry? For example was it the strategy firms that were driving the higher profitability compared to an accounting firm or an agency? Were you able to delineate?
Jason Mlicki: We certainly could delineate that. We have not done that yet. Not saying we won’t do that in the future. We’re still also sort of determining, out of the data set, where do we have enough significant mass to report out on individual segments. So for instance, we know right now, we have enough mass in about four to five different sectors were we can comfortably say there’s enough data here to say that this is probably pretty meaningful. Beyond that we don’t have enough data. So, now what that did tell us, to your point, was that there was an imbalance in the data. Meaning that, let’s say you look across all the sectors of respondents and across the sectors, 20% of the respondents were from consulting firms, 14% were from financial services firms, 12% were from software and IT hardware firms, those types of things. So we have those sort of sector breakdowns. What we did see is that there are definitely sectors that are having more success with thought leadership than others. So there’s a higher likelihood that a software company is going to find themselves in a position of most effectiveness with thought leadership.
Jason Mlicki: There’s a higher likelihood that a financial services firm is going to be a leader. In simpler terms, there is a very low likelihood that, like an architecture engineering firm, is going to be a leader. We are seeing some sector difference. Now, it’s easy to point and say well, they’re making these great investments in thought leadership and boy it look like it’s really delivering returns for the business. It is quite possible you look at those sectors and you could just take a quick brush stroke and say, “well, those are sectors that are doing really well right now right?” There’s a ton of margin in software, there’s a ton of margin in financial services right now. So, logically, as we’ve talked in our past podcasts, that notion of the VC train coming at you that’s consuming your business, logically they’re getting more out of this because they’re probably making bigger and more strategic investments.
So it may not be a characteristic of the behaviors of the thought leadership programs, it may just be a characteristic of the sectors themselves and that’s a potential issue I guess. What else would you like to know?
Jeff McKay: And the next one is, I wanna make sure we get through all these. I always tend to derail us and take us off on weird tangents. So, I’m turning over a new leaf and trying not to-
Jason Mlicki: It’s alright, sometimes tangents are good. Sometimes the best things occur at the end of unexpected streets. I think one of the ones that I found most interesting in the data set, it’s not necessarily surprising but it was really fabulous to back it up with data, which is that leaders just have been at this longer. So the likelihood that a leader, someone that is having really a great performance with thought leadership, has been at this, has been investing in thought leadership for somewhere between 4 to 10 years, is pretty good. So 71% of leaders have been investing in thought leadership for 4 to 10 years. By contrast, the folks that have been giving the worst performance out of this, 49% of them have been at this less than 3. So, I say that only because I think that there’s just too many firms that just don’t have enough patience. If you really want to be successful with developing intellectual capital and taking it to market, you need to have patience in the form of years not months. You need to just give it time to do it’s job, give yourself time to learn how to do your job because those two things go hand in hand.
You start out in this process developing content and you think you know what you’re doing and then you find out 18 months in that you didn’t know what you didn’t know. I’ve had this question repeatedly from my clients. They’ll ask me Jason, How long do we need to wait for this to start working? How long do we have to wait for that to start working? And I always kind of flippantly just respond give it 3 years. You should see these types of outcomes in 18 months and these types of outcomes in 3 years. I think the data backed that up and basically said when you get into that 4 to 10 year window, that’s when you should be firing at all cylinders. That’s when you have the ability to fire at all cylinders. But before that, chances are good, you won’t be and understand that and be patient is my biggest piece of advice on the research.
Jeff McKay: That’s interesting because it makes me think about a couple of different things. The first one is what’s happening in that time frame? Is your marketing team learning how to distribute more effectively, which channels work, which ones don’t? Or is your thought leadership evolving based on your learning? And when I say evolving, I mean is the thought leadership building on itself that the first couple of years, what you think may be thought leadership is not, and your learning yourself and changing your point of view, and getting more specific or targeted around that thought leadership so that it’s more impactful? Or it could be, well we need to see 3 or 4 years worth of data in order to develop some kind of trend analysis? But what’s happening in that 3 or 4 years, I think is really important because as a CMO, I’d be saying, “Alright, if the research is telling me I need to hit 4 to 10 years for this to really have an ROI, how can I accelerate that in years 1 to 3? How could I learn faster? Do I need to change this? Do I need to modify that?” Did anything come out in terms of how you can accelerate that?
Jason Mlicki: Well, there’s so many tiers of that question that it could be it’s own podcast. Because if you think about it, there’s some things that just need time to work. So, let’s make this really simplistic. If you do not have a practice today, and tomorrow you start a practice, and all of a sudden you’re hello world, brand new firm and we’re going to invest in thought leadership to really generate interest and demand in the marketplace. Well, the mechanics of Google alone, have a timeline to them. You can’t start publishing tomorrow and show up in Google search results in two weeks. So, there’s some built in things that you have no control over, that you can’t accelerate because you’re going to have to feed content into a system for at least 6 to 8 months before you see any real, meaningful change in your performance on a search basis. So there’s those types of things that you can’t control. Now that’s not true if you already have authority, right? If you’re at our event McKinsey talked about some of the things they were doing around thought leadership and some of the search outcomes they got relatively quickly, but they’re McKinsey, they’ve been at this for 50 years. They have tremendous web reputation already.
Okay so there’s the things you can’t control. I would argue search is one of those. You can’t control the timeline of search. You can certainly control … you can influence a little bit but not a lot. There are certain things that you certainly could control but I don’t know if they come quickly. Meaning that in my talk, really what I mapped out was what you do with those 4 to 10 years and to me it’s like an onion. You have to peel back layers of the onion to get better, and better and better over time. Some of those things are really capacity and capabilities building that you can’t accelerate. As a partner, you can’t just show up on day one and say, “I wanna be partner.” And then the firm says” Well how do I accelerate that?” There’s a certain amount of just time that you need to get the pattern development and the learning necessary to be successful in that role and the same thing sort of hold true on the content front.
I would argue that sort of layer one of that, and there’s multiple layers to this onion that I peeled back in my talk, layer one of that is just getting to exceptional content. You’re not going to be successful in the long run unless you have something really, really compelling to say and chances are good that you either, coming out of the gate you can’t necessarily massively accelerate that because you have to have some learnings if you’ve never don’t it before.
Now how can you accelerate that? Of course you can hire experts. People that have done this before, either outsourced or in sourced, however you bring them into your business, and have had success in the long run who can bring in the processes and the behaviors you need to get out exceptional content. But if you don’t do that, you need the time to learn. I don’t know if I answered the question at all other than to say there are layers to this that I peeled back in my talk. Layer one is exceptional content and the only way I can see that you could accelerate that, would be to insert strategic investments in learning that accelerate the path or insert resources that have skills that you don’t have. That make sense?
Jeff McKay: Yes it makes sense.
Jason Mlicki: Now I can’t say we answered the question. So it’s a great questions. I can’t say that, off the top of my head, that the data has that answer but I think it’s a great question and one that we will seek to answer in the next 12 months.
Jeff McKay: It’s really relevant because practice leaders, you’ve already said, are impatient. They wanna see this move as quickly as possible.
Jason Mlicki: Well I think everyone’s impatient and I think it’s ridiculous. I think that’s sort of my message.
Jeff McKay: You’re right. You’re right.
Jason Mlicki: I think if you’re a leader, of any business whether it’s a firm or whatever, you should be thinking in years not quarters. If you’re a really successful CEO you should probably be thinking in decades not years. You need to be thinking on a much longer time horizon about the type of business you’re trying to build and the type of intellectual property and intellectual capital you need to be successful. I guess I would argue that I think that we are as a culture, myopically too short focused on what we’re doing.
Jeff McKay: That’s for sure.
Jason Mlicki: And the data here, at least on this topic, backs it up considerably. That you just have to be patient and you have to work at it. There are things you can absolutely accelerate and should accelerate, but there are things you probably can’t.
Jeff McKay: Was there an element of firm personality in terms of pertinacity to take risk? I would think if you want to really jump start your intellectual capital voice, that you’re gonna have to take some risk and put yourself out there in terms of your point of view and being wrong, potentially. Do you have an attribute like that, that you looked at.
Jason Mlicki: I can’t speak to that specifically from the data. I can say from my personal experience, so qualitatively working with clients, I would argue every level of this continuum. So firms that are new, have never done this, to firms that are already exceptional global thought leaders. What I’ve seen in those clients is, your absolutely right that, we say this all the time, that a compelling point of view should attract and reject simultaneously. So it should be something that there are people in the market that fundamentally disagree with it, so much so that they are alienated and will probably never work with you. And there should be people that are so drawn into it, that believe everything you have to say, that you’re changing their lives. You’re practically a rockstar and we have a couple of clients where literally, the principal at the practice, he signs autographs when he goes and speaks because that’s how much he’s changed people’s lives. Its crazy but you have to have that really sharp, risky point of view to get there, I think, you can’t just be this flat homogenized view, and expect people to become attracted to you that way. So, that’s from my own personal experience. That’s not necessarily from the data set.
Jeff McKay: That’s been my experience as well.
Jason Mlicki: I was going to say that time story goes with it, right? Chances are good when you’re starting out, you’re a lot more fearful about saying the wrong thing, than when you’ve been at it for a while because you’re building your voice over that period of time as firm, as a practice leader and that voice brings confidence.
Jeff McKay: Yes.
Jason Mlicki: Alright, we’re running out of time so, do you want any more individual facts that you’d be curious to learn about from the research we did this year? I’ll look through my notes and see if anything jumps out to me that I really wanna share, I think is really interesting to tell.
Jeff McKay: Going back to the success measures, and one might argue that this is an extension of generating lead, but I think another important dimension of intellectual capital is identifying new growth opportunities for the firm that don’t have necessarily immediate ROI but they give you strategic advantage because you’ve identified an opportunity in the market that your competition may not have as a result of the intellectual capital that you’ve produced. Did you look at that?
Jason Mlicki: We did. There’s some pretty interesting data on that, spaced over all the years we’ve been doing this and I can tell you that the data itself is a little bit conflicting, so I haven’t really reconciled that yet. Meaning that, we know in some studies, that there’s a higher tendency from leaders to make strategic investments in research in order to discover new products and services. That’s the central intent of the research and any intellectual capital that falls out of that is a welcomed byproduct. In other studies we’ve found the exact opposite. That research is done really to confirm a hypothesis about a belief system that the practice has already defined, which feels a little bit less exploratory and a little bit more, let’s just get intellectual capital started. So the data has actually been a little conflicting on that. My opinion falls down on the side you’re on, which is that research that is structured to discover new products and services has the best potential to create long term value for the firm and there’s no reason that that research should not form the basis of intellectual capital as well as future value.
Jeff McKay: Yes. I don’t think most firms thing in those terms but I think it’s another way that firms should shift their thinking so that they’re looking through that lens. I’ll be curious to hear more about that as you do more research.
Jason Mlicki: I’d like to do that, and we talked about this in advance so the next podcast, I would like to have that discussion about the black box of IP. So this notion that the research that a firm does, should form the basis of both something highly coveted, highly valuable, highly protected, and something highly useful in the marketplace to create visibility, and leads and revenue, and all the things that we want as marketers. So I would like to do that podcast if you’re willing to go on that ride with me. There’s that big butt again, right?
Jeff McKay: I would love to go on that ride with you.
Jason Mlicki: Bye Jeff. I enjoyed this a lot. Thank you for taking the time to have me wade through three years worth of 50000 data points and try to make some sense of it for our listeners. I hope that you enjoyed it and I hope they enjoyed it as well.
Jeff McKay: You did that pretty well being from Ohio state.
Jason Mlicki: Well we are one of the world’s leading research institutions. Just ask them they’ll tell you. Talk soon.