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The rollercoaster of the last 18 months has taught us a lot about the importance of thought leadership. While the headline news is that clients of professional services firms have increasingly turned to thought leadership to help them navigate their way through the challenges they face, we wanted to dig beneath these headlines to investigate the needs and preferences of different client groups.

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Unlike lots of well-loved but now obsolete features of the early 2000s (Blockbuster Video, classified ads in the newspaper, and floppy disks, anyone?), we at Source are proud to have created something in the noughties that has aged beautifully. We are referring, of course, to our thought leadership ratings methodology—the criteria we use to assess the quality of a piece of thought leadership.

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Looking at examples of the thought leadership output of many professional services firms, it’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cast a long shadow. This is hardly surprising given the upheaval it has caused, and the way that it forced firms to pivot quickly away from their well-thought through 2020 content calendar to an approach that effectively focused on providing emergency assistance to clients in the form of “action leadership.” This focused less on data points and challenging established thinking, and much more on providing next step actions and downloadable checklists.

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The question of just how long a piece of thought leadership should be is a hotly debated subject. There is currently a prevailing view that shorter is better, and there’s clearly a growing focus on  “snackable” content with short articles, videos, and blogs being produced in ever greater numbers, and the 100-page PDFs of old becoming a dying breed.

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The results of a recent global survey we carried out of 3,500 senior buyers of consulting will be particularly interesting to those within consulting firms who have an interest in the success of thought leadership. The survey reveals that when senior buyers of consulting come across a piece of thought leadership on a topic that interests them, all but a tiny proportion will take action.

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Let’s start with a few facts. A lot of money is spent by consulting firms on producing thought leadership, including reports, articles, insights, podcasts, and the like. The specific amount varies by firm, but looking across the sector as a whole, we can be confident that it is nevertheless a very large number. A fact we can be a bit more definitive about, because it’s based on a global survey that we carried out a few months ago, is that senior consulting buyers see thought leadership as the second most effective way of marketing to clients. What’s the most important way, we hear you ask?

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We’re all well aware of the pressures placed on consulting firms to meet unprecedented client demand for insights to help them deal with the COVID crisis. The way in which thought leadership teams quickly pivoted to new topics while simultaneously ramping up production capacity and speed to market is impressive in itself. But what really stands out in conversations we had with leaders of these teams towards the end of last year is how they used the pandemic to rethink the art of the possible.

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The COVID pandemic has shaken up the thought leadership landscape in a variety of ways, which become all the more apparent when seen through the lens of our latest report, which ranks the thought leadership output of the leading consulting firms over the last 12 months.

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For the last few weeks, the Source thought leadership team has been busy rating a huge amount of consulting firm content to input to our Quality Ratings Report covering the whole of 2020. And while the challenges of 2020 have changed certain elements of what we’re seeing, there are some key characteristics of firms’ output that we see year after year. A good example of this is a widespread issue with the prompting action element of our scoring matrix, which for many publishers is the score that brings down their overall rating.

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The events of 2020 have undoubtedly shaken things up in the world of consulting firm content production. From our unique position looking across the whole thought leadership landscape, we believe there are some key trends that will help to shape 2021. Here are our top three: 

1.  A more agile mindset