The State of Online Publishing in the Consulting Industry
As consulting firms move the majority of their thought leadership content online, many cling to a publishing model that's a relic of the print era: hosting a monologue rather than a dialogue with the online viewers of their content. That's what a 2013 survey by the Bloom Group and the Association of Management Consulting Firms (AMCF) of 50 consulting firms shows. This report explores the findings. It also explains what the consulting firms that generate the most business leads from their online content do differently than the consulting firms that generate the least.
A 2013 Bloom Group/Association of Management Consulting Firms Research Report
By Bob Buday (Bloom Group) and Sally Caputo (the Association of Management Consulting Firms)
Consulting firms are in a heated online battle to impress clients with their smarts. The websites of many consultancies today are bursting with articles, research reports and presentations. So intense is the battle that some consulting firms’ home pages have shifted from front doors that promote consulting services to front pages of veritable online management journals. Just look at the websites of Ernst & Young (www.ey.com), AT Kearney (www.atkearney.com), and McKinsey (www.mckinsey.com).
Other consultancies have gone even further, creating separate URLs for their online publications that feature a smorgasbord of thought leadership content – among them, Boston Consulting Group, Booz & Co., FTI Consulting, Deloitte, Roland Berger Strategy Consultants and until recently, McKinsey (which in April shifted its McKinsey Quarterly content to its McKinsey.com URL).
While all this is happening, the online model has changed substantially for companies that must make money from their online publications. Traditional newspaper and magazine publishers ranging from The New York Times and Forbes, to The Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review have altered their online formula. Once limiting reader feedback to the Letters to the Editor section, the Journal, Forbes, HBR and the Times encourage online viewers to weigh in with comments, which for the Times can number 600 or more for certain articles and opinion pieces. Forbes has opened its online space to 1,000 outside contributors. It lets viewers know how many times each article has been read and how many people have shared it through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other online channels.
But what about consulting firms and their online publications? How many have changed their online publishing model to allow viewers to comments on articles, share them through social media, and permit outsiders to post their own pieces? How far have consulting firms gone in letting viewers of their website content engage in online dialogues around the content?
How many consulting firms are stuck in the old publishing model, one that we refer to as a “closed monologue,” where they do all the talking and don't permit the reader to weigh in?
To shed light on this issue, in February and March 2013, Bloom Group and the Association of Management Consulting Firms (AMCF) surveyed 50 consulting firms about their online publishing models. The types of consultancies included strategy consulting firms (48%), operations consulting firms (18%), and those with expertise in technology, human resources and other areas. Close to half (46%) were firms with $10 million or less in annual revenue; 10% generated more than $1 billion a year. And 24% were between $100 million and $1 billion, while 20% were from $11 million to $100 million. Nearly a quarter of our respondents were CEOs or managing directors; about a third of respondents were chief marketing officers; and another 22% were other marketing managers.
We sought to determine whether and how the online publishing model for consulting firms was changing, and what consulting firms were doing that made their online publications a better marketing tool.
Our key findings:
- A majority (63%) of consulting firms believe that the bar of quality for thought leadership content has gone up over the last five years -- and a greater percentage (72%) see it going up in the next five years.
- While other organizations and publications encourage comments and sharing ideas online, many consulting firms continue to engage in one-way conversations with the people who read their online publications. Some 66% of consulting firms do not permit viewers to comment on articles online; few extensively use interactive graphics that could tailor complex data for viewers; not many are regularly posting online videos that could humanize their thought leaders.
- While consulting firms have no shortage of innovative insights, many of those ideas don't appear to make it to their websites. Half the respondents published 20 or fewer articles on their websites last year. Only 30% published more than 50 articles. And two-thirds of the content was written by consultants themselves; about one-third of consultants are averse to using ghostwriters.
- Many consulting firms generate few client inquiries from their online content. Half of consulting firms say their online publications generated 20 or fewer inquiries in 2012; only 14% generated more than 100 inquiries.
- Despite many consulting firms’ online publications being a source of sales leads, less than a third have automated the process of sending online viewer information to business developers, and only 21% say their salespeople actively use the information marketers give them about online viewers.
- For online content to spawn leads, it appears that quality trumps quantity. Consulting firms whose online publications generated the highest number of client inquiries in 2012 (a group we refer to as "leaders") actually produced less content per $1 million dollar in firm revenue than did the firms with the lowest number of inquiries. The online content of leaders was far more often based on primary research than was laggards' content. As a result, we surmise that the leaders' content was of higher quality. In addition, the marketing function in the leaders determined which content deserved extensive marketing campaigns; this was the case in only half the laggards, where consultants made that decision. As well, the leaders were much more open to allowing online viewers to post comments this year on their firm's website. And they relied more heavily on ghostwriters to publish content, rather than wait for consultants to carve out time to pen articles.
The High Stakes For Thought Leaders
Publishing compelling articles, studies and other educational content on their websites has become vitally important to consulting firms. Increasingly, clients who seek consulting firms begin their search for them online. In a 2012 AMCF/ResearchNow survey of 200 executives who have a role in the purchase of consulting services for their companies, word of mouth – recommendations from colleagues and from trusted individuals outside the firm – still carry the most weight when selecting a consultant. But just behind that was the quality of a consulting firm’s presentations and its online presence, two key showcases of thought leadership. The chart below shows which factors most influenced their decisions, on a scale of one to 10.
Consulting firms today are in a heated battle to impress clients with their smarts through their online presence. The sheer number of online thought leadership articles has exploded. In 2006, Source for Consulting (which tracks thought leadership content in the consulting industry) found 40 of the largest consulting firms published 3,500 online articles. Just four years later, the number of articles rose to 13,000.
It’s no surprise that survey respondents told us that the game of thought leadership has become more competitive. Among our respondents, 47% said the quality of the competition has increased over the past five years. Another 16% said it has “gone up substantially.” When we asked why, we received comments such as these:
- "Five years ago, competitors weren’t engaged in thought leadership. Now some are.”
- "Clients expect better content/insight from their business partners, thus the content market is significantly more competitive."
- "Companies are more focused on delivering quality, and some who were not producing material have begun producing fairly good material."
- "It's dumbbell-shaped: The best is better. The worst is total crap, and even crappier inasmuch as more of it is just dumped online with little editing or thought."
- Five years ago, competitors weren't engaged in thought leadership. Now some are."
In another survey question, 72% said the bar of thought leadership quality will go up (including 9% who said it would go up substantially) over the next five years. “If we continue to enjoy the success that is, in part, tied to thought leadership, others will follow,” wrote one respondent, “and they have more funds to spend than we do.”
Yet while they are wise to the competition and see the web as a way to showcase their expertise, many consulting firms are not fully embracing the web’s full capabilities in their online marketing. Nearly all of them have a presence online, but many fewer appear have found the secret sauce to keeping viewers engaged and reaching out to inquire about consulting services.
The State of Consulting Firms’ Online Publications
Our survey found that most consulting firms’ model for online thought leadership is a one-way street, with little opportunity for viewers to provide feedback or engage with their authors. We call this a “closed monologue” model. In our survey, two-thirds of our respondents told us that they don’t permit comments on their articles, although 26% of them plan to change that this year and open up their sites for viewer comments. (See chart below left.) “We use social media as the forum for engagement,” one respondent wrote. “We do not use our website for engagement.”
Even those who do allow comments have had lackluster results. When asked about the average number of web viewer comments per online article, 60% said they had none. Another 28% had one to three comments; 13% had four to six; no one had seven or more.
Our research also told us that most consulting firms rely on consultants for both the inspiration and the writing for the online publications. Only 30% said they published more than 50 articles on their web sites last year; 50% published 20 or fewer articles. (See chart below right.)
The low output of articles may be due to the absence of primary research in consulting firms' content development programs. A major research study can be the source of numerous articles -- especially if it crosses industries, regions of the world, business functions, and so on. But our research found that a small minority of content was based on primary research last year.
We asked consulting firms to estimate the sources of their online content for 2012 -- that is, what percentage came from consultants' experience, secondary research, primary research they conduct, primary research conducted by another firm, or another source. An average 55% of their online content comes from the consultants’ experiences. About half that amount -- 27% -- is based on primary research. And 13% is based on secondary research. (See chart below left.)
Another factor may explain the low levels of online publishing in most consulting firms: their reluctance to offload article-writing to professional writers. On average, the firms we surveyed said their consultants write an estimated 67% of their online content; 33% was ghostwritten for them. And 57% of consultants in these firms are less than enthusiastic about working with ghostwriters; our survey respondents estimated that only an average 9% of their consultants "love" using ghostwriters. (See below.)
Furthermore, the survey showed that firms are not actively using interactive graphics and online videos. Interactive graphics can help a consulting firm's site visitors understand how the firm’s point of view affects them; online videos can humanize their thought leaders. Our respondents published an average of only 1.5 interactive graphics and only 5.4 videos on their sites last year, and plan only a slight increase for 2013 (to 3.3 interactive graphics and 7.2 website videos per firm). Only 14% develop microsites based on the article’s content, and only 11% conduct online video chats with visitors, two strategies that help drive viewer engagement and spawn leads.
But consulting firms are using their online publications to generate information for the sales force. Among the survey respondents, 85% said they give emails to the sales staff from prospects who
read online articles and want to find out more. A majority also give the sales staff names of people who register to download content or subscribed to online newsletters; a little less than half give sales information about viewing habits. However, 15% give no information to their sales staffs because they don’t collect it online, and only 30% have automated how they provide the information. Only 21% say they actively use the information marketers give them about online viewers.
The upshot: 50% of survey respondents said that their online publications generated 20 or fewer sales inquiries from visitors in 2012, and another 24% had only 21 to 40 calls precipitated from viewers of their online publications, as the chart below shows. About a quarter (26%) said their online content spawned more than 40 sales inquiries.
Comparing Leaders and Laggards in Online Publishing
The goal of publications on any consulting firm’s website is, of course, to generate interest in the firm’s expertise, especially with potential clients. So what can consulting firms do to increase the number of leads that their online publications generate?
To help answer this question, we compared survey answers from two groups of respondents:
- Consulting firms whose online publications generated the most inquiries from potential clients in 2012 (13 firms, each reporting more than 40 inquiries). We refer to this group as “online publishing leaders.”
- Consulting firms whose online publications generated the least number of inquiries (20 firms, each reporting 20 or fewer inquiries), the “online publishing laggards.”
Two notes before we go into how these groups differed. First, we defined “inquiries” as emails, phone calls or other communications from potential clients who viewed a firm’s online publications and requested a discussion with someone in the firm about the expertise expressed in an article. Second, as you might expect, the leaders were more likely to be larger consulting firms than were the laggards. In fact, leaders' average revenue was $708 million vs. $48 million for the laggards. So it would be easy to think it's an unfair comparison: leaders have far more resources for producing and marketing content.
Yet in measuring the number of sales inquiries generated per $1 million in firm revenue, the leaders’ online publications still spawned about twice the number that the laggards generated: 0.40 inquiries for leaders vs. 0.21 inquiries per $1 million revenue for laggards. As such, we believe the leaders-laggards comparison is a fair one.
So how do the online publishing leaders differ from the laggards? Seven differences stood out:
- The leaders actually produced less online content per revenue than the laggards but generated nearly five times more inquiries per article. The leaders produced an average 0.14 articles per $1 million revenue last year vs. 0.33 articles per $1 million in revenue for the laggards. The leaders also averaged 2.8 inquiries per online article vs. 0.6 inquiries per article for the laggards. (Not adjusting for revenue, the leaders published an average 100 online articles in 2012 vs. 16 articles for the laggards.)
- Leaders base a much larger percentage of their online content on primary research. On average, 32% of leaders’ content is based on primary research vs. 9% for laggards. Laggards are more likely to base their content on their consultants’ experience: 71% of laggards’ content is based on it vs. 51% of leaders’ content.
- Marketers play a much stronger role in leaders in determining which content deserves extensive marketing campaigns. In 100% of the leaders, marketing decides. In 57% of the leaders, marketing makes this decision by intuition; in 43% of the leaders, marketing uses website data on viewer engagement to determine where to allocate marketing budget. That’s much different than what happens in the laggards: in 50% of these firms, consultants determine which content deserves extensive marketing. In 25% of the laggards, marketing makes the decision on intuition and another 25% make it based on online viewer data.
- About the same percentage of leaders and laggards permitted comments on their online articles in 2012 (33% of leaders and 32% of laggards did so). However, 50% of leaders say they planned to allow comments this year; only 11% of laggards said they would do so.
- Leaders are much more likely than laggards to measure how much their online viewers are interested in their content. For example, all the leaders said they compile some measures of this while 33% of the laggards do not. In addition more than 70% of leaders track the number of article downloads, content views, and “shares” (number of times their articles are Tweeted, emailed, etc.). Only 56% of laggards track number of downloads; 50% track views; and 44% track content “shares.”
- Leaders are much more likely to use interactive graphics (average of 3.9 last year) and online videos (14). Laggards averaged less than one interactive graphic (0.9) and 2.7 videos.
- More consultants in the online publishing leaders are comfortable with ghostwriters than are consultants in the lagging companies. Some 53% of consultants in online publishing leaders were estimated to be very comfortable or “love” working with ghostwriters vs. 43% who said the same in the laggards. That helps explain why 53% of online content is ghostwritten in the leaders vs. 22% in the laggards.
Many consulting companies’ online publications follow the “closed monologue” model, giving visitors no opportunity to comment or engage further with the firm at the webpage that houses an article of interest. This is a lost opportunity for consulting firms: to engage with potential clients at the very moment they are intrigued by an online article. To seize such opportunities, consulting firms need to shift their publishing mindset to an “open dialogue” model, one that goes beyond publishing articles to emphasizing the sharing of ideas. The table below shows the key differences between the closed monologue and open dialogue models of online publishing.
Open dialogue means creating articles about intriguing topics that serve as the springboard to a lively online discussion -- open to clients, prospects, network partners and others – that inspires greater understanding as well as future articles that go deeper into the topic. Open dialogue allows for comments, shares, conversation and other interactions that pull in more visitors and pull them closer.
From our experience, here are several steps for shifting to the open dialogue model for online publications:
1. Create more content and make it more engaging
Too often a consulting firm’s thought leadership articles are written, posted online and forgotten. Few firms seem to develop new spins on topics that have already been published, perpetuating the problem of broad but superficial content. This often happens when consultants aren’t guided on what to write about. Only 36% of respondents said their marketing department forces consultants to choose topics that fit within a larger theme; in 26% of consulting firms, marketers suggest topics but consultants nonetheless decide. And in 19% of these firms, consultants decide on topics without marketing’s input.
A better approach: choose topics with an overall theme, build a platform with the initial article, then drill deeper on its various points for subsequent articles.
In addition, consider getting consultants to be more comfortable in having professional writers capture their ideas. Our survey found that the higher the number of leads generated through online publications, the greater the likelihood that the content was ghostwritten. Of the 13 consulting firms that each generated more than 40 inquiries in 2012, 53% of their online content was ghostwritten. For the consulting firms whose online publications spawned 20 or fewer leads, only 22% of their content was ghostwritten.
Successful online publications also take a broad view on how to deliver content. They go beyond the main article to include interactive graphics that enable viewers to customize their data by region, industry or other factor; and videos that make thought leaders more approachable. Their content also includes content from viewers, who often have useful perspectives of their own. (We wrote about this in our newsletter, which you can find here.)
For example, a March article on the online edition of Harvard Business Review about why academic tenure should be abolished has drawn more than 100 comments -- content whose total word count is more than 14 times the word count of the original article.
2. Nurture the online dialogue
Christopher Parsons, who heads a small consulting firm called Knowledge Architecture, which serves architects and engineers, has built a LinkedIn group (KA Connect) to share perspectives and insights. In the three years since Parsons launched KA Connect, it has grown to more than 1,700 members, including clients and others. Parsons says only about 1% of these are passionate contributors; maybe 10% comment occasionally.
But Parsons invests plenty of time stoking the fire: asking clients, professional contacts and others to comment on KA Connect. Parsons encourages visitors with especially insightful comments to develop their thoughts into articles, which he shares through his LinkedIn group. (See an interview we conducted with Parsons here.)
As his LinkedIn group grew, many members showed up at Knowledge Architecture’s annual conference to meet Parsons and other KA Connect members to continue the discussions. And while KA Connect makes a conscious effort not to “sell” Knowledge Architecture’s professional services, it has sparked many sales discussions anyway. The takeaway from Parson’s experience is that creating a dialog takes time and hands-on nurturing, but the payoffs are there.
3. Enlist your consultants onto your promotion team
Once your online publication has great content and provides the chance for feedback, you must let potential visitors know it is there – through Tweets, social media shares and other means. Yet our 2012 social media survey showed that consulting firms keep a tight rein on who is allowed to promote their content via social media. Marketing personnel had the most leeway in this area; 69% of our respondents let the marketing staff promote the firm on multimedia sites such as YouTube; 67% on closed discussion groups such as LinkedIn; 85% on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook; and 69% on company blogs. Only about half allowed “any consultant” to use these channels.
David Edelman, a McKinsey partner and co-leader of the firm’s Digital Marketing Strategy group, is a prolific author on digital marketing. Edelman is a tireless tweeter, sending out nearly 90 tweets in March 2013 and 60 in February alone, to share his insights and link readers to his published articles. His experience shows the power of adding your firm's consultants to your promotion team.
4. Put more of your marketing mix on your website
The open dialogue model for online publications is only the starting point for sharing a firm’s ideas and attracting more interest in its services. The same online tools that make a website more engaging can also pull visitors closer and nurture deeper dialog.
For example, once an article has been promoted on social media and starts to attract hits, the firm can convene an online video conference to explore the ideas further. Consultants can ask individual visitors to join a private discussion group online. This allows potential clients to explore a business relationship in a more comfortable setting, with less pressure than they would feel in a face-to-face meeting.
5. Track what content is connecting and shift marketing resources to it
Companies spend a lot of time optimizing their content so that it turns up frequently in Google searches. But the real measure of how well an idea resonates goes deeper than that. Anyone can click on an article; many fewer actually feel strongly enough about it to recommend or share it.
While 82% of our survey respondents embraced Web analytics (such as Google Analytics) to grasp the number of visitors and understand how they discovered the site, far fewer tracked the number of inbound links (41%); the number of “likes” (36%) or the number of viewers who emailed articles from the site (21%.)
But these measures -- not the number of fleeting glimpses -- are the real “signs of endearment.” Consulting firms should go beyond collecting superficial measures of a site’s popularity and start collecting measures that gauge deeper interest. The chart below shows that far fewer of our survey respondents utilize "likes," "recommends," and emails from a site, all better barometers of reader engagement.
Finally, consulting firms should put themselves in their client’s shoes. Clients today have far less time and money to spend researching potential consultants. Their problems are more challenging than ever, and they still need great insights to help solve them. Online publications can be interactive sales tools that help potential clients “kick the tires” of your experts before they commit to a formal sales discussion. Switching to an open dialogue model makes it easier for them to get to know you before the selling begins.
About the Authors
Bob Buday, founding partner of Bloom Group, led the study. He was assisted by Sally Caputo, chief operating officer of AMCF. This is the fourth study conducted jointly by AMCF and the Bloom Group.