How do you differentiate your accounting firm from the hundreds, if not thousands, of other firms all offering the identical services, dishing out the exact same advice, and fighting for your clients?
You establish yourself as a thought leader.
In an industry chock-full of too similar firms offering too similar services, thought leaders are unique. They stand out against the rabble by solving client pain points, influencing audience value perceptions, and leading the pack when it comes to creating high-quality, valuable content.
And the tangible benefit of becoming a thought leader isn’t just some comments on your blog or a following on Twitter—it’s fresh, new leads, qualified clients, and a huge benefit to your bottom line.
In this article, you’ll learn what thought leadership is, practical steps for growing thought leadership in your firm, and, at the end of it all, how to use your reputation to generate customers and improve your bottom line.
What is thought leadership?
Thought leadership is a positive reputation built on the back of high-quality content that both communicates the depth of your expertise and consistently solves your audience’s pain points.
Creating a blog post or a case study that showcases your expertise is good, but it’s not thought leadership. Thought leadership stays 100% focused on the issues your audience is dealing with.
Most importantly, thought leaders don’t try to be all things for all people—they position themselves as experts on specific topics, and they demonstrate their expertise with every article, whitepaper, and tweet they publish.
Thought leadership matters because it’s usually the key ingredient missing from firms struggling to differentiate themselves from their competitors. An AMCF study published in 2015 found that 96% of clients said thought leadership was a significant factor in selecting a firm.
But while many firms claim to be thought leaders, few are. Fortunately, even if you’re not a thought leader, it’s not too late to start building your reputation.
How to cultivate thought leadership
There are no shortcuts if you want to become a thought leader.
You can’t publish one or two blog posts a month and call yourself a thought leader. You can’t sit back and expect to build a reputation without investment. And you definitely can’t slap the words ‘thought leader’ on your firm’s website and hope to be called a thought leader just because you say you are.
Thought leadership is the result of demonstrating your expertise over and over as you proactively solve client issues on your website and across your social media channels. In other words, you need to create a culture of generating and sharing knowledge within your firm if you want to succeed.
Of course, you can’t just publish content wildly and hope to become a thought leader. Research by AMCF found that the content that thought leaders are great at creating a variety of content that focuses on consultants’ experience (38%), qualitative research (38%), and quantitative research (19%).
Thought leadership content prioritizes quality over quantity, and it perfectly balances a firm’s expertise with informative, industry-specific research that’s based on client experiences.
Once you understand how to focus your content, you need to know what separates thought leadership content from any other blog post or infographic. You can ensure that your content is thought leadership material by adhering to these four principles:
1) Ensure your content is well-positioned
Good thought leadership content is specialized and highly relevant to your market. It’s specialized. Sure, this means not everyone will read your content or hire your firm, but who cares? At the end of the day, your content remains highly valuable to the people who matter most: your target audience.
For example, FBC has positioned themselves as one of Canada’s leading farm tax specialists. They provide consultancy for businesses in the agricultural industry and help them with everything from tax prep to bookkeeping. The articles they publish all cater to this specific niche.
Unfortunately, only 5% of firms position themselves according to their ideal client like this. There are other ways to position your firm aside from client type—but too few firms pick their specialty and stick with it. Those who do win the clients they love working with and see win more leads overall.
2) Demonstrate the depth of your expertise
One of the crucial pain points every firm needs to address is “Why should I trust you?” You overcome this objection by demonstrating how qualified you are to solve their problems.
For example, the firm of Mark E. Feinsot provides accounting services for the aviation industry. What makes him qualified? He has experience as a pilot and a flight instructor which gives him a unique understanding of what documentation pilots, flight instructors, aircraft management companies, and flight crews need to qualify for tax breaks and deductions on airplanes.
“Full service” firms tend to claim to be able to handle everything, but the caveat is that they don’t excel at anything. Your firm will only stand out if you align your specialization to your area of expertise.
3) Solve client problems
The difference between a capability statement and a piece of thought leadership content is that one is all about you while the other is all about your client. To create great thought leadership material, you need to drop the sales pitch and start giving people the help they need before they ask for it.
In the UK, the big topic on everyone’s mind is Brexit. People don’t care how prepared your firm is for it—they want to know how it will impact them. So you can see why PwC’s Brexit readiness survey is a hugely successful piece of content that instantly solves a pressing client need.
Importantly, you can’t invent issues to solve. Before you start creating content, you need to know what pain points your audience is dealing with. If you don’t know, you’d better invest in customer research.
4) Give advice that demonstrably works
The final essential ingredient to great thought leadership content is real-world applicability. In a world fraught with cries of “fake news,” you’d better be damn sure that your advice is good.
How do you demonstrate this? To use a cliché, the proof’s in the pudding. Nothing is quite as compelling as a great case study or real-world example that proves that you understand your niche, you know what you’re talking about, and you are the most qualified person to solve your clients’ problems.
Thomson Reuters has the right idea here. They publish frequent articles helping businesses find the perfect accounting software and they have fourteen pages of case studies to back up their advice.
Turning thought leadership into revenue
Now that you know how to create thought leadership content, you need to understand thought leadership marketing. This is your ticket to taking content that is not inherently profitable, using it to create awareness and ultimately generate leads who will become paying clients.
Lying at the heart of thought leadership marketing is an understanding of your buying cycle. You need to think about what type of content your paying clients find valuable, and how that differs from the content you’d create for a lead who’s barely even heard of your brand.
Once you’ve created your content, you need to make sure people see it. Invest in ad campaigns, publish articles on external sites that align with your area of expertise, stay active on social media, and prioritize your onsite SEO above all else.
Real thought leaders perfectly blend of content creation, original research, and clever marketing.
If that sounds like a lot of work… I won’t lie, it is. But the good news is that you don’t need to drum up fresh ideas for every piece of content. In fact, by creating one or two core assets (e.g., research report, ebook, etc.), you will probably have everything you need to create multiple smaller pieces of content.
For example, did you come up with brand new statistics relevant to your industry? Turn them into an infographic and tweet them out to your followers. Did you uncover new advancements in your industry? Write about them in your blog and make a guide to teach your audience about the changes.
Just make sure that each piece of content you create includes a call to action that spurs your audience towards the next steps you want them to take. Doing this is the only way to turn cold leads into warm leads, warm leads into prospects, and prospects into paying clients.
One final note: marketing automation is your friend. If you’re having a hard time separating leads from prospects and moving them through the funnel, invest in automation that will help you with lead nurturing, lead scoring, and lead qualification criteria.
And just like that, your firm’s thought leadership will start generating cold hard.
Thought leadership in action
So what does great thought leadership look like in action? Take a look at Deloitte.
Deloitte is ranked #1 in quality thought leadership, and they’re billed as the top accounting firm in the US. Whether you visit their US, UK, or Canadian sites, Deloitte is publishing tons of high-quality content on every topic of national interest. They’re a giant, so they don’t need to specialize the way smaller firms should, but every piece of content still focuses on new technologies and innovative solutions.
If you want to start making waves in your niche, it’s time to start selling yourself as a “full service” firm. Position yourself as an expert in one topic, and start building your reputation as a thought leader. You’ll be glad you did.