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The Value of Thought Leadership

Nov 22nd 2016
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When it comes to choosing an accountant, expertise is king. Not surprisingly, this is identified as the top selection criteria for businesses when choosing an accountant.

Even amongst the profession, knowledge abounds. So, how does one go about setting themselves and their practice above the others in the mind of the market? Enter the concept of thought leadership.

By now you’ve heard of it, and you may even be wary that it’s nothing more than jargon, the buzzword du jour, or a flash-in-the-pan success-building trend. But the statistics available beg to differ and paint a significant story.

In fact, The Gartner Group has described thought leadership as “an established field in marketing and a basis of competitive differentiation when well-informed buyers see little perceived differences between solution providers.” Maybe not the most concise definition, but it ultimately hits the mark. Given that we’ve discussed how specialization can differentiate your practice, this definition actually reinforces thought leadership within the value-added practice concept.

Sure, it sounds great to be a thought leader and all, but how does it actually impact the bottom line?

Implications of Thought Leadership

So, what are the implications of this on your business? It’s simple. People value knowledge. People recognize where their own expertise ends and are willing to pay handsomely for the security of placing significant business concerns in the hands of an expert.

But thought leaders take advantage of this reality and push it even further. Why settle for an expert when you can employ the services of someone even the experts look up to?

You might not be surprised to learn that people are willing to pay more for the service of industry leaders.You probably didn’t know that people are willing to pay the highest-profile leaders over 14 times that of the standard professional, according to Hinge Research Institute.

That’s 14 times more! Let that sink in for a bit.

Not only does thought leadership bode well for the billable hours of an individual, but the impact of thought leadership on purchase and consultation engagements is significant.

Do You Have What it Takes?

First, don’t let yourself get intimidated by the fancy moniker of “thought leadership.” Don’t assume what you have to say isn’t valuable or that you can’t become a thought leader.

It’s just a different approach. It’s not unlike the difference between a classical piano instructor and a concert pianist. Both are highly skilled. Both are passionate. Both have years of experience.

The difference with the concert pianist is that he or she has chosen to take their music to a larger direct audience and present their talents publicly with all of the risks, responsibilities, and accolades that come from a solid performance. Not only that, they adopt a leadership role, working to inspire others to elevate the craft at large.

That’s not to say that it’s an easy leap from expert to thought leader, but rather one that can be approached methodically, like any skill.

Many Types of Fish, Many Types of Ponds

A thought leader in small-town Nebraska is no less a thought leader than someone in New York. While the latter may have the benefit of a larger audience directly in their back yard, the web has had a profound effect on making the world a much smaller place

Of course there are thought leaders in any industry that have made a global name for themselves, but that’s not the only pond to play in. Trade organizations, for example, are frequently launching regional versions of their primary events, which still include similar content formats (e.g., speakers, breakout sessions, etc.).

The digital ecosystem is continuing to grow in its ability to link prospects and service providers, and with sites like LinkedIn encouraging their members to blog directly in-platform, the possibilities of reach within a targeted segment are enormous, regardless of where you call home. So, if you can manage to see yourself as qualified as anyone (assuming you have the expertise to back it up), it’s just a matter of getting started.

What Am I Passionate About?

There’s a belief that how something is said is as important as what is said. It’s true. We can all relate to being enthralled by someone speaking on a topic, even when we don’t find that particular topic interesting at all. So, what’s the secret?

It’s passion. It’s charisma. It’s the ability to detect that the person speaking (or writing) has a genuine interest in what they’re talking about and has a passion for communicating it to an audience. And conversely, we can all detect general disinterest or feigned interest.

So, ask yourself, “What am I enthusiastic about?” That is thought leadership at its core. It’s the ability to take what you know and inspire, engage, and empower an audience.

What Does My Audience Want to Know?

Good question. After all, if you’re the most brilliant human alive regarding topics no one cares about, what’s the point? Again, it comes back to the beauty of the information age, and there’s a variety of methods to get into the heads of your market.

By learning what’s important to your audience, you can better pull together thoughts on how to go about addressing these questions. You can choose to contribute to the discourse online if you want, or you can just observe the discussion threads to give yourself some context into:

  • Common questions
  • Common misconceptions
  • Misguided advice (or blatant misinformation)
  • Market frustrations
  • Gaps in overall accounting literacy
  • Real-life stories and examples (both positive and negative)

Don’t Be Afraid to Have an Opinion

Maybe your profession doesn’t allow for a completely cavalier attitude toward the rules and regulations, but that’s not to say that you can’t have thoughts, ideas, and opinions that go against the grain or challenge new ways of thinking. In fact, it’s the ability to challenge your audience with new ways of thinking that separates you from a common subject-matter expert in your field.

Not too long ago, those touting the power of the cloud to transform SMB accounting were few and far between. But given the leadership of early adopters, and their vision for how the digital ecosystem could significantly benefit firms and clients alike, they are looked at as go-to resources for providing a take on the pulse of the accounting tech environment.

The topical opportunities are limitless, it’s just a matter of choosing a message and committing to it entirely.

Packaging Your Message

By now, you’ve taken inventory of your expertise and cross-checked it against what resonates with your market. What next? Unless you amplify your voice, no amount of insight matters.

One of the greatest things about the marketing ecosystem is the sheer amount of opportunities to get your message in front of an audience. To start, work with your capabilities and focus on the properties you’re the most comfortable with. As you learn and grow, you’ve got a large amount of channels to amplify your message:

  • Website
  • Blogs
  • White papers/e-books
  • Podcasts
  • Speaking engagements
  • Videos
  • Newsletters
  • Published articles
  • Social media

Like anything associated with marketing, consistency and regularity are crucial to success. If you confuse your message or positioning, you can easily lose your audience. And if you let too much time pass between touch points, you can just as easily lose any momentum you’ve built.

This is an excerpt from a larger guide on how to truly build The Value-Added Practice, which you can download here for free.

Replies (4)

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By [email protected]
Nov 22nd 2016 19:10 EST

Wes excellent article, thank you. You raise some excellent points and I especially like the fact you quoted from the Hinge Research Inst paper which said people are willing to pay over 14 times for the highest-profile leaders compared to the standard professional.
From my years of work in the thought leadership space and having worked with a number of thought leadership campaigns and having interviewed many thought leaders over the years, I have learnt the key to great thought leadership is:
a) it should be long-term in focus
b) it should be directly linked to the firm's business objectives
c) it requires executive support.
Thought leadership is not the domain solely of PR or marketing. If that is where it resides it is headed for the scrap heap.PR and Marketing form an critical role but they should now own it solely.

We should also be careful not to confuse experts with thought leaders. There are many experts out there who are not and never will be nor want to be thought leaders. Today thought leadership means setting new parameters for a sector or industry, providing new insights, challenging existing paradigms but all the time supporting these points of view with empirical evidence or research.
Opinions are plentiful and easy but opinions backed by deep insights and research that go to your client's biggest issues and challenges is where thought leaders play and where the best value is added to the client.
Yours in thought leadership.

Thanks (1)
Replying to [email protected]:
Wes Wilkins
By Wes Wilkins
Nov 28th 2016 10:47 EST

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Craig.

I absolutely agree with your 3 keys to thought leadership success, and particularly agree with your comments on the role of PR and marketing. If thought leadership is wholly owned by these functions, it increases the risk of diluting the effectiveness, or worse yet, can strain the credibility of those associated with the message.


Thanks (1)
Kelso Consulting - award winning public relations agency
By TimPrizeman
Nov 24th 2016 05:49 EST

A useful "call to action" for accountants. For those worrying that being a "thought leader" sounds excessive, and the term is indeed pretty pompous, here are two points that will help.

1 - when most marketers say "thought leadership" they are actually referring to good old-fashioned PR! Giving expert views on tax, business issues, etc.

Many accountants have been doing this for years through events, leaflets and in the media. Now they have social media and other online channels too. Most accountants don't do enough of this.

2 - Where accountants fall down is they do things that don't make them stand out. They put lots of effort into being seen as technical experts in, for instance, tax and VAT, or maybe property technicalities.

But there are lots of great accountants out there who are technically good, and on top many clients don't want uber technical specialists anyway... they want great accountants who give valuable advice from really understanding the client's business and the challenges it faces.

This is where most accountants could do a better job of being distinctive, and where accountancy firms of all sizes can stand out as recognised experts if they make the effort of providing interesting insights that are very relevant to the businesses they are targeting.

Of course, many accountancy firms don't target, which is a big problem but not one I can address here... suffice to say "we want to appeal to everyone" or something generic like "we target all SME's within 20 miles of my office" is not a strategy, its an absence of strategy.

If you want to be a "thought leader" you need to clearly think about who you want to influence in the first place so you can focus on communicating important insights to the right people, at the right time, with the right channels.

Thanks (2)
Replying to TimPrizeman:
Wes Wilkins
By Wes Wilkins
Nov 28th 2016 11:53 EST

Thanks for the comments, Tim - you make some great points. To your comment about focus, the "all things to all people" approach could really limit your effectiveness in the realm of thought leadership. When true thought leadership is combined with dedicated focus, the results could make a serious impact on a business.

Thanks (0)