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You don’t have to work in professional services marketing for long before the phrase ‘thought leader’ crops up. Everyone wants to be a thought leader… it’s some kind of utopian vision instilled in every fee earner before they’ve even learnt the basics of contract law. It stands to reason. We’re in a business where people are paid for their thoughts. And the people with the best thoughts command the highest rates. So, why wouldn’t you want to be a leader in this field.

The problem is – and we really feel this particular pain – it tends to be a phrase that people use, without knowing, necessarily, how they’re going to get there. 

But first, let’s agree what thought leadership really is. Where better to start – and let’s be honest, we all do – than with the law according to Wikipedia:

A thought leader is an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.[1] The Oxford English Dictionary gives as its first citation for the phrase an 1887 description of Henry Ward Beecher as “one of the great thought-leaders in America.” The term had earlier (1876) been applied to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was said to manifest “the wizard power of a thought-leader.”[2]

So, in our world that means someone that has identified what they want to be seen as an expert in and said the right things, in the right places, to make that happen. Well that’s all good, but how does that happen in real life? The challenge we face in professional services is that there are – literally – thousands and thousands of people, the world over, doing what you do. We might all THINK we can be the ‘law firm of choice’ with a ‘proven strength in depth’ within [insert legal area of work] but (assuming it’s not for the wrong reasons) it’s actually pretty tricky to stand out for legal expertise. You don’t have to look far to find research that proves consumers ‘buy’ legal services on how and why you do what you do, not what you do.


What’s the difference between thought leadership, PR and content marketing?

This is where it’s important to understand the difference between thought leadership, PR and content marketing. There are plenty of agencies that would say something like “thought leadership is the goal, content marketing is the means to achieve it”. Well… yes, we kind of agree with that. But it goes further. 

Thought leadership is an elite area of content marketing and likewise PR.  Content marketing includes brochures, proposals, case studies and all other areas of CONTENT used to support your MARKETING. Thought leadership can be a part of this in generating content but it isn’t all it includes. PR is much the same. PR also includes press releases about your firm, new arrivals and ‘wins’, charity and community links and general comment/publication on topics outside of the ‘hot topic’ you want to be known for. Thought leadership is a part of PR but it isn’t everything.


So how can you stand out?

Usually, there are three ways in which the professional services stand out as thought leaders:

  1. By establishing an expertise in a new area of law, previously under-explored. Think emerging technology, such as AI or Blockchain.
  2. By establishing an expertise in an emerging or growing sector. Think socially motivated business or ethical investment.
  3. By doing what you do in a new or different way, relevant to a particular audience. Think fixed fee products, crowdsourced litigation etc.

Wait… that last one made an important point. Relevant to a particular audience. If you want to establish yourselves as thought leaders – the primary ‘go-to’ minds for a particular area of law – everything starts with understanding your target audience. You need to work out who you are talking to and what they need to hear. That will, then, dictate your thought leadership approach and activity.

Let’s explain that one a little more. Irrespective of whether you’re going with 1, 2 or 3, thought leadership relies on your having something important to say. Something that sets out your thinking on the subject. 


So, what’s in a thought leadership campaign? 

A typical thought leadership campaign might involve the following things:

  • A meaty piece of content – be that a white paper or series of articles. These can be commenting on things in the news/hot topics, presenting new research or simply explaining a complicated or new concept properly. Central to this will be the establishment of a problem, presentation of some wisdom that demonstrates you’re the solution.
  • Guidance and advice – linked to the above, you’ll usually want to include some content focusing on the ‘what next’ element. Once people have read your words of wisdom, what do they need to do next or change?
  • Mixed media – when you’ve gone to this much trouble, the last thing you want to do is roll it all up in one white paper and call it a day. The best thought leadership will, of course, provide a meaty collection of information, but will also involve other forms of media. These are likely to include infographics, videos, podcasts, social media content, blog articles, animated gifs, online and offline advertising and training seminars.
  • Press liaison – you’ve got loads of content – next you need to get the message out there through a combination of direct press communication (press releases, briefing events, social media engagement) and news hijacking (jumping on other content, related to your topic) and providing a relevant comment that draws the audience to your thought leadership content. In fact, there are many that would argue that this element IS thought leadership… that it’s basically just a PR exercise.
  • Client Care – we would argue that thought leadership goes beyond PR. We think the inclusion of content in the client care (and business development) process is important and massively valuable. That means email marketing, social selling campaigns, training and seminars… heck… there’s even a growing trend for mailing things out hard copy again.
  • Social media and SEO – of course, it isn’t just about talking to existing contacts… and the press… a massive part of thought leadership relates to your online presence. In fact, one of the most important measures of success is your search ranking and social media reach for whatever topic you settled on. Increasingly, thought leadership campaigns are structured – and content produced – in such a way as to ensure maximum search ranking and social media engagement/reach.


There is one more thing we wanted to talk about. What do you write about?

It doesn’t matter whether you want to establish your ‘leadership’ in a new area of law or sector, or communicate an innovative approach to what you do… the golden rule is the same. You either need to talk about something that others haven’t talked about or, failing that, you need to talk about it in a more comprehensive way. The best thought leadership takes the former path. The best thought leadership includes new thinking, presented in a new way. That means primary research (a survey, for example), as well as an up to date analysis of other thinking. By linking your research to other thinking, you’re able to associate your work with established thought leaders, thereby positioning yourself above them (because you’ve done primary research they haven’t). Research can come from focus groups, online or hard copy surveys… it’s up to you… but there’s no escaping it. If you want to end up being the person sitting on the BBC news, talking about [insert area of law] then it’s likely to start with your saying something nobody else has said… so that people sit up and take note.