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Which would your clients rather buy? Thought leadership or expertise?

The term “thought leader” gets tossed around a lot these days, and I’ll admit to doing some of the tossing. But I’m starting to think that what business professional firms should be promoting is not so much their thought leadership, but their expertise. Simple reason: that’s what clients want to buy. So what’s the difference?

Thought leadership is all about Big Ideas

Elsewhere on this site, we've talked about the timeline of an idea -- how, like people, ideas have a beginning, adolescence, middle age, old age, and eventually they die. That post said that if the content your firm develops doesn’t fit with the where the idea is along the timeline in your client’s mind, what you say won’t help them and it won’t help you either. If you’re developing content like blog posts, videos, articles or podcasts about that topic, you need to match what you’re saying to your market’s reality.

Thought leadership tends to be at the beginning of that life cycle, when the idea is new, controversial and maybe without all the kinks worked out yet. The other blog post talked about the process quality standard ISO 9000 as an example of an idea that was new and controversial once (and the focus of many Dilbert cartoons); now it’s mainstream.

Expertise is about making things work effectively

Here’s the thing. Most clients don’t want to be a beta test site for new ideas. They want solutions that work, which have been tried elsewhere and found to succeed. They want an “ISO 9000” after it’s been tried out by other companies, and the experience curve is well along.

Accordingly, clients are looking for expertise -- the proven ability to get things done, with no mess and no drama, and cost-effectively. Most professional firm clients are looking for expertise -- they want stuff that works. And anyone claiming expertise must be able to deliver on the promise of experience in getting results, to avoid and deal with problems resulting from implementation.

Thought leadership versus expertise: in solar power

For example, consider solar power. It’s quite possible for members of your firm to be thought-leaders in solar power -- to champion wide fields of solar arrays that will pump out power that’s too cheap to meter, replacing fossil fuels. Thought leadership can talk about the need to inspire political leaders with this new green future. The nagging question of power storage to meet peak load and when the sun doesn’t shine -- that remains.

Expertise is all about making solar power work. It’s about finding locations where there’s a good solar resource, that’s also close to existing sub-stations so that transmission costs and hassles are low. It calls for expertise in working with people living near the projects, reassuring them by pointing out how vegetation will be planted to mask the glare of the installation from nearby roads.

Is there a role for thought leadership content in professional services?

So how can business professional firms provide value through content around thought leadership? Largely, through their detailed understanding of their field, and how it’s going to develop. For example, I helped the head of Global Mining for one of my clients develop a thought-leadership article about the trend from open-pit mining towards more underground mining. This consultant had some good advice for mining sector members to keep their skills relevant during the growth in need for underground mining skills.

So if you want members of your firm to generate thought-leadership content, be sure it contains significant doses of advice and recommendations on how people reading that work can either avoid a problem or gain benefits from the opportunities, due to the change.

Elton Musk, a US entrepreneur who is in the process of disrupting three industries, is a thought leader. So was Steve Jobs, who might be thought of as a disruptor to five sectors (computers, music storage, music portability, mobile phones and tablets). Marissa Mayer is seen as a thought leader in turning around Yahoo!, and Sheryl Sandberg is credited with changes at Facebook.

But is thought leadership the right label for someone who has expertise in geeky, wonky field such as designing effective solar-power projects? I think so. That's because many of this person's clients can be equally narrow in their work.

Marketers can help with this by learning the trends and issues that their firm's professionals deal with, and then helping them develop content that is effective in showing a grasp of those big-picture ideas.

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