How to create strong signals

Spotted this article in The Economist on the growing cost of thought leadership. In an escalating battle for top-of-mind, the top consultancy brands it seems are prepared to spend large amounts – up to 5% of gross revenues by one estimate – to produce thinking they then give away for free.

The activity shows no sign of slowing down in these recessionary times, with spending on such papers up by 500% according to one estimate, yet ironically the very consultancies that hammer their clients on the need for accountability can ascribe very little hard data – at least publicly – on the return on the investment.

So why do it?

My sense is that this really is a battle fought around something my friend and colleague Alex calls “strength of signal”. Much of the thinking about that is fairly obvious in a B2C market, but how do you generate ‘strong signals’ in the B2B market where the big consultancies are competing? I subscribe to more than my fair share of such papers. So what follows are the ten components that I think create the strongest signals in a B2B market crowded with corridor walkers.

The ten things that make thought pieces worth reading (and therefore help build professional brands):

1. Authenticity – they reveal a genuine interest in, and knowledge of, the area, its importance and its implications. In an era where so many consultancies seem to run revenue drag nets hoping to snare billings in every area imaginable, this is a great way to exhibit genuine expertise

2. Innovation – they show a consultancy looking to break new ground or at the very least champion a broader awareness than the conventional viewpoints. That aligns not just with senior decision makers’ search for new competitive opportunities, it also sends a subliminal message of a consultancy committed to, and capable of, looking beyond the ordinary.

3. Authority – by taking a prominent position in the thinking around the subject, the consultancy establishes credibility and at least looks to make the ‘go-to’ shortlist for that issue, and problems that appear, or feel, similar. A business that lives by its brains must be prepared to preview its brains in action.

4. Familiarity – they reveal a working knowledge not just a theoretical understanding of the dynamics of the industry/sector. This is critical, because it implies all-important experience.

5. Consistency – there should be clear line of sight between what the consultancy talks about and what it espouses philosophically. In other words, anyone reading such material should see it as a natural space for the consultancy to be in.

6. Leadership – because of all the above, the consultancy should feel like the natural leader for initiatives in this area – not just the company that people come to by chance, but the one they look to for assertions of change and measures of success

7. Urgency – the business case for considering or acting upon this in a shortened timeframe is vital. In a world where distractions loom large and agendas loom larger, getting an idea on the mind-map of senior teams is never easy. Strong signals make for a compelling business case. They provide a reason to pick up a phone, clear a hole in the calendar and say ‘we should talk’.

8. Distinction – the thinking must be new. I counselled a consultancy recently that wanted to release a paper based on everything they had searched. There was nothing wrong with what they had found, it’s just that it completely lacked authorship, and therefore ownership. It told me what everyone else was thinking, which, actually, diminished the role of the consultancy. They literally couldn’t put their name to it. I asked them to bring me back a point of view.

9. Objectivity – it can’t just feel like another pitch, and in that sense many of the dynamics that apply to social media (giving generously in order to drive up fans and followers) absolutely apply. At the same time though, it can’t be so divorced from the consultancy paying for it that the alignment is lost.

10. Name – the thinking should be framed to a term that the consultancy wants to take ownership of. This needs to be a snappy but credible name that sits easily with the consultancy brand.


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  1. Alexandra Lutyens says

    Hey Mark – great punchy post – really enjoyed reading it.
    Implicit in what you are saying, and something you are a master of, is cut-through and for that the design of the piece is hugely impactful. Reading hooks such as summary points, descriptive sub-heads and pull quotes. Online reading with its emphasis on scanning, has to a degree positively impacted offline reading. You may have seen @jeffbulas post today which adds some further thoughts to yours – although it is about blog writing.

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