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Thought Leadership for professional services firms: what value?

How can firms measure the real commercial impact of their thought leadership activity?

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It’s no secret that professional services firms invest heavily in thought leadership. From blog posts to research-led reports, from bylined press articles to keynote talks, most firms clearly believe that thought leadership will get them noticed, showcase their expertise and have a positive commercial impact.

Yet, far fewer are able to measure that impact.

Most measure the results you’d expect to see. You can look at web metrics like page views or the number of downloads. You can see how your social media audience and engagement rises. Or there’s media mentions resulting from thought leadership. And of course you have open and click through rates on email campaigns.

You should expect to see these emerging from a well designed and executed thought leadership programme, and they’re all important metrics. However, they’re not the real impact metrics - they’re just means to ends. What really matter are the commercial metrics.

Here are five ways you can measure whether or not your thought leadership programme is making the difference you need it to. None are short-term measures. Use tactical metrics to check you’re on the right path towards these profound shifts in business performance, but from the outset know which of these five matter to you, and start measuring them.

1. Are we achieving more sales leads?

Good thought leadership programmes generate leads. They pinpoint topics that matter to buyers. They showcase fresh, relevant ideas that inspire buyers. And, importantly, they’re seen by those buyers.

According to Edelman’s 2020 Impact of Thought Leadership study, 39% of C-suite execs and decision makers said thought leadership content had influenced them to ask a vendor to participate in the RFP process, and 47% said such content had a direct impact on awarding business.

So, whether it’s through outbound emails, LinkedIn posts, or mentions in the highest profile media, successful thought leadership programmes get the attention and interest of buyers, and this, in time, produces sales leads. You should measure the number of relevant leads you generate.

2. Are we able to charge more for our services?

Buyers pay more for accountancy firms with visible expertise. According to this article in AccountingWEB, they pay a remarkable 14 times more.

Thought leadership allows firms to draw attention to their specific expertise. It can help undifferentiated firms to find specific services, it can prompt opportunities for cross-selling, and it can highlight opportunities to benefit from deep expertise that buyers never knew existed.

So, you should expect to see your average fees increase over time as a result of your thought leadership programme.

3. Are we winning the war for talent?

We’re all acutely aware of the war for talent in the accountancy profession, but the precise impact top talent can make is perhaps under-recognised by most firms. According to this study from McKinsey, high performers are 400% more productive than average ones.

As Steve Jobs famously put it: “Go after the cream of the cream. A small team of A+ players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players.”

Effective thought leadership should engage and inspire top talent to stay at or want to join your firm. This is either directly by them contributing to the programme and having an outlet and a platform for their ideas, or indirectly by them seeing your firm as a home of talent and ideas. Ultimately, you should expect to see improvements in the quantity and quality of CVs arriving at your firm.

4. Are we leading innovation in our market?

An ongoing programme where you actively draw out and provoke the freshest, most relevant ideas from your best thinkers, and then find clear, compelling ways to articulate those thoughts should do more than fuel your client and talent acquisition – it should turbocharge your innovation capabilities.

As this article in Accounting Today argues: “If you are a forward-looking firm, you should now be planning for the future of audit, tax and consulting. If you have no market-leading thoughts, go out and get them.”

Thought leadership out to be the spark that ignites your innovation. Track and measure that.

5. Are we growing our brand value?

Ultimately, brands are what give accountancy firms value. If intangible assets comprised 84% of the value of companies on the 2019 S&P 500 then what percentage do they make up of the value of accountancy firms which have relatively few fixed assets?

As this article by John Shumadine, Deloitte’s former Director of Competitive Intelligence comprehensively details, between 2010 and 2020 Deloitte rose rapidly up the league tables of both thought leadership performance and brand value. It’s a transformation I witnessed firsthand as a thought leadership writer for the firm during much of that period.

From both a marketing and an accounting perspective, firms ought to have a clear understanding of their brand value, and they should expect to see a successful thought leadership campaign enhance it over time.

Getting it right

There is of course no guarantee that a thought leadership programme will move the needle on these metrics. Indeed, according to the Edelman study, 88% of decision-makers surveyed believe that thought leadership is effective in enhancing their perceptions of an organization—yet only 17% of them rate the quality of most of the thought leadership they read as very good or excellent.

According to Bruce Rogers, Chief Insight Officer at Forbes: “In constructing thought leadership campaigns, accounting firms or any professional services firms must approach the matter strategically. This includes an in depth understanding of what really matters to the intended audiences, how the content will profoundly bolster the firm’s position as an expert, and how all parties will dramatically benefit.”

The idea has to be fresh and relevant. The execution has to engage and inspire. It has to reach the audience – even the most game-changing idea, conveyed in sparkling copy, has no value if it sits unseen in the dark corner of a website.

It’s far from easy to get all that right. But if you succeed you can have a significant positive impact on your firm. If you’re also able to measure that impact, you’ll also know what made the difference, and so your future thought leadership will become even more effective.

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