Ever wonder how thought leaders rise to prominence in their profession, while other experts remain more or less invisible?

An essential key is research. At the heart of solid thought leadership marketing is a true understanding of your market. But not just through your lens, well informed as it might be. Successful thought leaders have a thorough understanding of what matters and is relevant to the people who sign the contracts – their clients and prospects.

Impact of Research on Growth and Profitability (Source: Inside the Buyer’s Brain)

Thought Leadership Marketing

The chart shows that there is a strong correlation between research and growth. Why is this? While being an expert in “something” means you have deep knowledge about a particular subject area, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you also have an expert view on the way that issue affects your audience. When you conduct audience research on a regular basis, you build a body of relevant knowledge from your buyer’s perspective. And without the benefit of this research, you are essentially blind to the way your audience defines the problem (we call this a “blindspot”). Inevitably, clients will see things differently than you do, and good thought leadership marketing incorporates that perspective.

How to Research

There are 3 kinds of research strategies, and the best research includes all three of these.

  1. Using what you already know. This may not seem like a strategy at all, but in fact it’s quite important. The reality is that you are talking to your clients, you get feedback on wins and losses, you hear and observe things at speaking and networking events. When these insights are used alongside the other two strategies, they can be quite powerful.
  2. Secondary research. You’ll have a wealth of information from online tools, competitor or target client websites, social media channels or Google searches.
  3. Primary research. Asking your target clients or prospects directly for answers to the questions you have, or even better, having a neutral third party ask those questions, gives you that candid viewpoint of how your audience rolls.

Now, each of these individual strategies has advantages and disadvantages. But used in tandem, they cover all the angles.

What to Research

Let’s now talk about what to research, using the above approach. There are 5 areas I recommend you explore.

1. Organizational Priorities. First, you want to understand the organizational priorities of your clients and prospects, and how your services can help address those priorities. These priorities will help you define what you will write and speak about as you carry out your thought leadership marketing.

This is an important issue to understand because becoming a widely known expert is less about promoting the services you offer than addressing the issues your clients actually face.

2. Approaches to addressing those priorities. You’ll want to conduct research that helps you understand what strategies and steps your target clients are considering to address the priorities you identified previously.

What you learn in this research will help you determine what services or solutions your potential clients are likely to consider. This information in turn helps you understand how to talk about and message around those services or solutions. So often in professional services, our target clients don’t even think of us when they looking for an answer to their problem. They don’t consider us because they don’t know that we offer the expertise they need.

3. Action triggers. At what point does a prospective client seek outside help? If you can understand what motives your audience to take action, you can be better prepared to offer what they need when they need it. This knowledge can also help you fill your content funnel with relevant material that’s more likely to generate new business.

If in your research you notice some common trigger points across your audiences, then you have a very good indication of what to plan for in your thought leadership marketing—and how to adjust your content funnel to address those triggers.

4. Why you? Why did your current clients select you over other experts? Answering this question will help you understand your differentiators.

In our research of the professional services marketplace, we find that expertise is the factor that most often tips the scale in favor of the expert they ultimately decide to do business with. So the extent to which you’re differentiated around expertise in turn affects the speed of your ascent to greater visibility.

Thought Leadership Marketing

SEE ALSO: Expertise as a Differentiation Strategy

5. Competitive landscape. Do you know who your competitors really are? Our research says not so much. On average, there is only a 25% overlap in the companies a firm thinks are competitors and those named by their clients and prospects. In other words, 75% of the time, you don’t know who you are losing business to. Understanding your competitive landscape through your audience’s eyes will help you position yourself against the firms you compete against in the real world.

Thought Leadership Marketing

Source: Inside the Buyer’s Brain

Once you’ve completed your investigation and exploration, you’ll use your findings to inform three foundational components of thought leadership marketing:

  1. Your differentiators. At last, you’ll be able to separate your expertise from the crowd.
  2. Your market positioning. You’ll be in a stronger position to tell the story of your firm—and use that story to position yourself against competitors.
  3. Your expertise. And finally, you’ll be able to tightly define your expertise—what aspects of your thought leadership will make you the most visible?

To be sure, the discovery that comes out of these 5 areas is quite expansive—in fact, you’ll be sitting on a treasure trove of information about your audiences and yourself. Most importantly, being able to see your brand, services and expertise through your audience’s eyes and then crafting your strategy to address their perspective will make you a visible expert.

Additional Resources:

How Hinge Can Help:

Brand research gets to the core of what will resonate with those audiences—and is an integral part of what Hinge does for clients. Learn more about our research services or contact us to learn whether research makes sense for your professional services firm.

Elizabeth Harr