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The Visible Expert℠: How Thought Leadership Marketing Can Help You Build Your Firm

You know their names. You’ve heard them speak. They’re the folks in the professional services marketplace who are always doing keynote addresses. They’re well known throughout the industry, and their names draw business. They lend credibility and thought leadership to the firms where they work.

You might know someone like this. Maybe you are someone like this, or you’re on your way there. These high visibility professionals are the ones storied in their industries and beyond for elite expertise. Sometimes, at the highest level, their names are synonymous with their industries. 

We call them Visible Experts℠. And they’re the topic of our most recent research, as well as our new full-length book: The Visible Expert℠. As we’ve conducted our studies and written the book, we’ve learned some surprising truths about how reputations are built, shared, and accelerated in the world of professional services.

Answering the Big Questions

The phenomenon of thought leadership marketing – driving firm growth through visible personal expertise – has been growing more and more important for some time. Our previous research had shown that expertise was one of the most important qualities service providers could bring to the table for potential clients.

So we knew expertise was important to buyers. But we wanted to dig deeper for data that could show us what was really going on. Why does visible expertise matter so much to clients? What are its true benefits?  How do buyers search for and evaluate it? Then we wanted to find out how rising experts could use this knowledge to their advantage.

So we buckled down and conducted an expansive study of 1,028 professional services buyers, as well as 130 of the industry’s leading Visible Experts, including people like David Meerman Scott, Staci Riordan, and Joe Pulizzi.

We identified five levels of expertise, from the Local Heroes at Level 1 (known primarily in their firm) to the global leaders at Level 5.

With this framework and diverse array of data, we had everything we needed to get to the bottom of high visibility expertise. Once we analyzed the results, we found we’d gotten more answers than we bargained for.

The Benefits of Expertise

We know buyers seek expertise, but how specifically does the presence of in-house Visible Experts impact a service provider’s firm? You can organize the benefits into two basic categories: brand building and business development: 

Figure 1. Impacts of Visible Experts on Firms

Impact of Visible Experts Thought Leadership on Firms

66% of respondents reported that high visibility experts had contributed to BD, where 61% reported positive impact on their brands. When we looked at brand benefits on a more granular level, we found that they took a number of forms:

  • Positive effect on brand recognition
  • Added trust/credibility
  • Established market leadership

On the business development side, we found that Visible Experts prompted striking increases in lead generation and the billing rates that a firm could command.

Figure 2. Hourly Rates Firms Will Pay for Visible Experts by Level

Hourly Rates Firms Will Pay for Visible Expert Thought Leaders

 

Compared to the average professional (for whom we provided a $100 baseline), buyers were willing to pay more than double for even a Level 1 expert – and progressively more as the level of expertise rose. Our Level 5 Superstars could command more than thirteen times the baseline.

There’s a clear incentive, then, for firms to cultivate Visible Experts. But that raises many more questions. For example, where, exactly, do your experts need to be visible?

How Buyers Find and Evaluate Experts

Our research shows that buyer’s information-seeking habits are changing dramatically. When a potential client goes to check out your experts, they use a variety of sources – and increasingly, those sources are online.

Figure 3. How Buyers “Check Out” Potential Professional Services Providers

How Buyers Check Out Professional Services Visible Expert Thought Leaders

In fact, the top source – used by over 80% of buyers – is your firm’s website. The next most common is an online search, reinforcing the importance of your online brand and visibility in search. Purchasers may also talk to friends or colleagues, or look on social media platforms, particularly LinkedIn.

Notably, all four of those methods are more common than talking to formal references. Buyers use an average of 3.2 methods, and two of the three most common methods are online.

If your firm is relying on formal references to project your experts’ reputations, it’s simply not going to be enough. You have to be everywhere your audience looks to really increase your experts’ visibility.

Once buyers have found your experts, they’re going to make an assessment. So what persuades them that your people are experts?

Figure 4. What Convinces Clients that Someone is a Visible Expert

What Convinces Clients that Someone is a Visible Expert

The most persuasive criterion is a reputation as an expert among folks that a buyer knows and trusts.

This is a central pillar of an individual’s brand, but it’s not the only one. Buyers’ assessments are shaped by an average of 4.1 factors.

Some of the other most common factors tell an interesting story. 38% of buyers responded to an expert’s ability to make complex ideas understandable – in essence, their communication skills. 31% were persuaded by an expert’s talent for inspiring confidence.

These “soft skills” may not be commonly regarded as core components of professional services expertise. But in fact, they’re essential pieces of the puzzle, driving the success of many of today’s highest-profile Visible Experts.

The Building Blocks of Thought Leadership Marketing

As we analyzed our results, we found that there were consistent “building blocks” for high visibility expertise – marketing tools and techniques used most commonly by Visible Experts. In fact, the average number of these tools experts used was 15.9.

Even more interesting were the tools that experts reported to be most effective, delivering the highest return on effort.

Figure 5. Tools and Techniques with the Greatest Impact

Tools that experts reported to be most effective

The lesson for rising experts? It’s important to be everywhere your audience is looking – but as you consider where to focus your efforts, books and speaking engagements are particularly powerful platforms for building credibility.

A Path Forward

Once we identified patterns like these, it became clear that there was a replicable process for building a reputation as a Visible Expert. Not only was the path replicable, but we found an extra surprise..

There were a subset of Visible Experts who rose through the levels of expertise in half the time of their peers. These “Fast Track” experts enjoyed a wide range of benefits, including more speaking inquiries and higher fees. And we were able to identify the repeatable components of Fast Track expertise as well.

Based on this body of research, we’ve developed a program to help professionals build their reputations and share their thought leadership with the marketplace. For experts at any level, the program we describe in The Visible Expert℠ is designed to provide an effective and efficient path to a more powerful reputation in the professional services marketplace.

The book also provides much more data from our research and exploration of the results. We dive deeper into all the topics above, including the activities that set “Fast Track” Visible Experts apart.

We also share insights from some of today’s top thought leaders in the world of professional services. Whether you’re at the beginning of your personal journey or seeking to take your staff to the next level, The Visible Expert℠ is designed to guide you every step of the way. Download your free copy below and, as always, we welcome comments and feedback.

On Twitter or LinkedIn? Please take a minute to share The Visible Expert on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Author: Lee Frederiksen, Ph.D. Who wears the boots in our office? That would be Lee, our managing partner, who suits up in a pair of cowboy boots every day and drives strategy and research for our clients. With a Ph.D. in behavioral psychology, Lee is a former researcher and tenured professor at Virginia Tech, where he became a national authority on organizational behavior management and marketing. He left academia to start up and run three high-growth companies, including an $80 million runaway success story.

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