When discussing thought leadership -- the market-positioning technique increasingly embraced by accounting firms -- the emphasis is often put on the first word. "Thoughts" are what will populate the blog posts, white papers, videos and other media shared by firm experts as part of a comprehensive content marketing strategy.
And while this expertise is the valuable commodity, firms can't ignore the leadership role in disseminating it, especially in the initial stages of launching their thought leadership program.
The best thought leader candidates are authoritative purveyors of specific knowledge -- and, precisely because of that, they are very busy. Consequently, firm marketers' first step in developing a program is identifying who is willing to make a time commitment to collectively lead these efforts.
These leaders will do so under the guidance -- and necessary persistence -- of the marketing department or consultants, but proactivity is essential.
"It's a matter of getting partners to raise their hands and say, 'I'm willing to participate in a thought leadership program,' because it does require a commitment to do it," explained Alan Vitberg, owner and chief marketing guru of Rochester, N.Y.-based Vitberg LLC, a marketing agency specializing in CPA firms. "Some really smart partners have a ton of expertise but just a small circle of contacts or network. A thought leader is someone who has the interest, willingness and capability to prepare and develop the content that's going to be used."
Until this idea of content marketing, which is essentially packaging thought leadership for various platforms to generate leads, is brought up for discussion, firms might not even be aware who is willing and able to chip in. "You should poll the firm, to see who's interested," advised Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk, president of Atlanta-based professional services consultancy BBR Marketing. "It can be surprising, the interest among some of the junior staff to be participating contributors, who you might not have realized."
And when that interest is roused, so is the firm leader to leverage their niche talents.
"Isn't that a great way to engage reluctant rainmakers in your firm to be more active in your marketing program?" Vitberg asked. "In some firms, partners are horrific at sales and networking, but brilliant at the subject matter; genius. Why not capture that asset, that genius, and use it in a content management program, use it to generate leads? You're using the best of their experience and expertise. Use all of that knowledge they've gained over the years and package it."
While gauging internal interest, accounting firms should also factor in the concerns of their client base.
"The key is identifying topics that are of interest," shared Dawn Wagenaar, principal of St. Paul, Minn.-based professional services marketing firm Ingenuity Marketing Group. "One little tip is to look back on deleted and sent items in your e-mail to see what clients are asking about. CPAs always say, 'But that's so boring.' So it's about convincing them it's an interesting topic or idea."
Sweet spots for engaging topics will emerge in that intersection between frequent client inquiry and market position.
"You should be thinking about a blog [for example] in a macro way -- what do you want to communicate or be known for," Ruszczyk said. "If only 5 percent of your business comes from audit and you're not looking to grow that area, it's not a topic you want to write about that much."
The industries and subjects that firms do want covered should be assigned to their experts in those areas, to be held accountable by the marketing team. Typically, this means a publishing calendar, which, as Ruszczyk explained to one particular firm, doesn't have to start too ambitiously. That firm had 12 partners who were each tasked with writing one blog post annually.
"So they knew a year in advance," she said. "It was having a calendar and knowing what they were going to talk about at certain points. Things were going to come up, and they probably wanted to grab that opportunity to put something out there to help readers, and for multiple reasons. No. 1, it's on everyone's mind and, No. 2, it's fantastic for search engine optimization."
So while the more timely topics that garner Google results won't be known in advance, general deadlines should be. "We track [our calendar] out for a year if we know what is going on," said Wagenaar. "And quarterly, we get together to create ideas and topics, and brainstorm. Whether that's writing articles, pitching to the media ... . Whatever it is, it can be a lot to pull it all together."
Even with a calendar, much of that effort will go to keeping everyone on task.
"There is an amazing amount of accountability," Vitberg shared. "I don't know if any firm's been successful at keeping the partners' feet to the fire. .. They put together a publishing schedule, but think of it more in terms of best practice guidelines, rather than absolute."
A robust thought leadership program, then, requires a united effort between the appointed leaders and marketing staff. Depending on the leader's skill set, the level of collaboration can range from deadline reminders to marketers drawing on the experts' knowledge to write the content themselves.
"The writer does interviews and data collection, and works with the partner to get something published, and it takes the burden off the partner," Vitberg explained. "They're asking the partner to contribute their thoughts, and what's written will reflect their voice."
"Many firms don't know [ghostwriting] is a possibility," Wagenaar observed, adding that it "ensure[s] accuracy, accountability and consistency."
As firms do become more aware, they are hiring the appropriate marketing specialists. "Firms are shifting the thinking about the types of people they need within a marketing department," Vitberg continued. "They are looking toward people who have a combination of social media, content and writing skills -- looking for inbound marketing specialists. It's tough to find those folks."
The new marketing skillset doesn't end with a gift for language -- in fact, once thoughts are published, the important work begins. If a blog is posted, but never commented on or tweeted, does it really make a sound?
Successful thought leadership requires the most expansive spread of information possible, which is where the all-important repurposing of content comes into play.
The life cycle of relevant and well-explained content could, for example, start as a PowerPoint presentation for a conference, become a white paper, then a blog post, which is then tweeted and linked in a LinkedIn group as a topic for further discussion, then turned into a video of the original presenter answering the most common questions to the thought piece in all its incarnations.
"Repurposing and re-engineering content is one of the things that's at the very top of the list for a great thought leadership or content management program," said Vitberg. "Even before you think about what you're going to do, think about how you're going to repackage that material."
One firm that he recently worked with put out a survey about best practices within a vertical industry, using the results as fodder for blogs, a whitepaper, e-mail blasts and newsletters. "We planned out how to repurpose it before the survey even began; where we wanted to direct those channels," Vitberg explained.
"In every case, the main objective was lead generation. What we did was take that core piece, the summary of the survey results, and tuck it behind a form. Every piece of repurposed content had a call to action to this landing page, where someone could get to this main document."
While lead generation is the goal for every piece of thought leadership, through immediate action like signing up for a webinar, or a series of links that leads to that client conversion, firms must realize that content management programs are not built in a few clicks.
"It takes two to three years to create a strong content campaign," Westerberg shared. "It's an investment."
Vitberg would agree: "Content marketing isn't easy; it requires consistency and persistence to see results. It's not a one-off type of strategy."
Nor can it be tasked to just one person or department. Thought leaders are in constant want of followers -- whether on Twitter or in conference seats -- but they also need to be led.
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