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  • Writer's pictureSusan Tatum

Using Thought Leadership

with Jason Mlicki, Principal Rattleback

There is a lot of marketing content out there, but what is it that is breaking past ‘the noise’? Jason Mlicki, Principal at Rattleback and author of E-Book, The Thought Leadership Handbook, joins me to share the value thought leadership has in creating meaningful, productive content for his clients and other professional service firms. He gives insightful steps for successfully improving and using thought leadership to invite action from customers.

Notes from the Show

Author of E-Book, The Thought Leadership Handbook, and Principal at Rattleback a marketing agency that specializes in helping midsize professional service firms create demand and generate leads, is Jason Mlicki. Jason joins me to dissect the ins and outs of Thought Leadership, what it is and how you should be using it.

At its core, Thought Leadership is about creating content that cuts through the noise, something we find very important on the show. So what are the steps and parts to successfully using thought leadership?

Find a distinct and coherent point of view: Go after big problems in your industry, bringing solutions and clarity to the chaos.

Invite action: Include key steps and necessary knowledge to activate movement.

Research is fundamental: Jason explains the difference between what he calls ‘Big R Research and little r research’ and how the right method of research depending on your size and needs can inform your content.

Launch the big piece: It’s easier to deconstruct a meaty, info packed piece of content into more content than build smaller pieces into something meaningful. Jason also shares some great advice on how he structures his blog posts, which led to the creation of his E-Book.

We are living and working in a rapidly changing economic environment, and as Jason states, it's a wonderful time to be a part of a consulting firm because clients will be leaning into advice amid the swirling chaos. You can find out more about Jason Mlicki and his upcoming Thought Leadership seminar at their perspective websites.

What's Inside:

  • What is the difference between marketing content and thought leadership?

  • What is the role of research in thought leadership?

  • Should thought leadership always lead to taking action?

  • How executives use thought leadership.

  • How to get started with and improve your thought leadership.

Mentioned in this Episode:

Transcribed by AI Susan Tatum 0:37

Welcome back, everybody. Today my guest is Jason Mlicki, of he is a principal at Rattleback. And I, this is going to be a great show, because, well, one of the reasons is because Jason is really an expert in thought leadership. And you guys know me and stopping the noise. And I think that thought leadership has become a bit of a buzzword that is creating a lot of noise out there. And I know Jason has, has some thoughts on that. And he actually authored a book called The Thought Leadership handbook. It's an ebook that ought to be a real book on the shelves,

Jason Mlicki 1:13

just too kind

Susan Tatum 1:14

Oh, it's a great example of thought leadership. And I will, I will encourage everybody to read to read this. But Jason, welcome. It's good to talk to you again.

Jason Mlicki 1:22

You too. Thank you for having me, Susan. I'm excited to be here.

Susan Tatum 1:25

Great. So tell everybody, just a little bit about what it is you do.

Jason Mlicki 1:30

Yeah, happy to, so Rattleback is we call it the marketing agency for professional services firms. So our clients are mostly mid sized consulting firms, IT services firms, data analytics firms, and we help them create demand and generate leads. So we sort of think there's two things we do one is, is develop felt leadership. So help them build a strategy around the issues they want to own and develop high quality content that can get them known for those issues. And then activating that with lead gen programs online. So be it Google advertising, LinkedIn advertising, nurturing, that kind of stuff to take that content and turn it into, hopefully, conversations for them. That's the goal. Right? Sometimes easier than not, I'll be brutally honest, I am also brutally honest.

Susan Tatum 2:21

Well, you know, I think it's become it that it's become a challenge the using content of any kind to attract people to you. And part of that, I think, you know, goes back to, as I was saying, earlier, there's so much stuff out there. That's quite frankly, crap.

Jason Mlicki 2:37

There's so much noise to plug the podcast. You know, I, one of the things I did, so this was late in the pandemic, like fall of 2020. I called up every, like chief editorial officer I knew in commercial organizations. So I caught up folks at, you know, all the big tier one consulting firms and just ask them what's going on. And the first thing they said, every one of them said the same thing to me. They said, Jason, we've published more in the last three months than we did in the last three years. So essentially, what you know, like everything else in our society, in the last 24 months, what happened was, you know, a momentary reduction of activity followed by a massive glut of activity. And I think it's just pushed clients on their heels. And they're just sort of overwhelmed with so much coming at them, that they don't really know what, you know, really, what to make of it. You know, what, what's good, what's bad, who can I trust? Who can I not trust? And how do I make sense of the noise? Right?

Susan Tatum 2:36

So yes, I 100% agree that that's, that's completely what's happening. And but how do you get to how do you create content, that that's truly thought leadership? And have it be able to cut through that noise and get to the right people?

Jason Mlicki 3:52

Yeah, so let's, great question. Let's break it down on a couple of fronts, I think the first thing is, is making sure that you actually have a distinct and clear and coherent point of view. So so much of what gets pushed out there is just content, right? And there's nothing wrong with content, there's a whole conference for content marketing, there's a whole world of content. And I always frame this sort of as it's how to XYZ, right how to do this five steps to do this, which we write a lot of right. And that's content. And it's it tells you steps to unlock a process. Thought leadership, on the other hand, has to have a really clear and coherent point of view on an issue that really is a burning platform for clients. So it might be, you know, sort of deep education on Okay, well, what's really going on in machine learning in higher education right now, and what should I be doing about it? So it's, it's usually going after mushy, complex problems that are big problems for organizations, that and it's trying to get down to a coherent and hopefully simple solution or a solution that at least brings clarity to the chaos. So that's sort of like, kind of step one of answering your question, I think, is defining really what makes thought leadership thought leadership and one of my my clients always like to say, well, Jason, if it's, if it's not, it doesn't have a point of view and it's not guiding people somewhere than it's thought followership and it's kind of like, I always laugh about that. Like, yeah, so you don't want to preach that. So the question is, how do you get to that. And I think what we've found over the years doing this work with subject matter experts is that there are really smart people inside of consulting firms, there's really smart people, people inside of every b2b organization. And the problem that most of them have is that their field of vision is too narrow. So, you know, I always say, a great consultant, they might work with a couple of clients in a year, right, they might work with a handful or a dozen clients over a decade. And so their perspective is, is bound by how many interactions they're going to have. And so we always encourage our clients, we have to get fundamental underlying primary research, you've got to get a broader field of vision around how companies are solving problems. And that's it starts with some type of original primary research. So we always encourage our clients, it's like, okay, you want to pair some new research, with your perspective. And those two things together usually will yield a distinct point of view that's different than everyone else's. Or maybe it's not necessarily different, it's more coherent. And it's more practical, more usable. You know, I'm working with my class right now. And I'll stop on, you know, executive insight on how to deal, how to operate in an inflationary environment. So that's a piece of thought leadership that we're trying to sort of develop. And when we looked at and did a survey of what was out there from other tier one firms, and this is not a tier one firm, this is a midsize firm, everything was sort of impractical, it was all really interesting. It gave you a good sense of what drives inflation, and what executives CEOs should be thinking about. But it wasn't like giving you a lot of clarity on what you should be doing about it. And so we feel like that's the niche that we can occupy is the space between, it's like, Well, okay, I get it, there's inflation, I don't really need to know the drivers. But I need to know is what I do about it? How do I manage differently if I've never managed in this, and let's face it, and that by that particular topic? Almost nobody has, like 50 years?

Susan Tatum 7:25

Yeah. Wow. So what so just thought leadership, in your opinion, need to lead to action that you can take?

Jason Mlicki 7:35

Yes, in fact, that's actually one of the tenants that we always talk about is there's a great, there was a great study done by source for consulting, I don't know if you've ever read Fiona's stuff through the years, she did a research study, probably eight or 10 years ago. And in that study, she looked at, and we've mirrored the study with some of our own studies, what executives do with Thought Leadership and what you want them to do. And one of the big takeaways in that study was that if you can get the client, the potential client to take some action, whether it's, you know, give them advice on first steps, or, you know, get them in a motion that said something and, you know, starts a discussion internally, something that gets them to start trying to apply the thinking, the likelihood that they're going to eventually start a conversation with you goes up pretty dramatically. So you really want if you're producing any piece of content, you really want at the end there to be a clear, hey, here's your key, the next thing you should be doing, or the first thing you should be doing, or here's, here's some key steps you might want to have or a discussion guide, or anything that's going to activate, you know, movement in the in the clan organization.

Susan Tatum 8:45

That's really important, you know, because that because I think, I guess, sometimes content can just be like, Oh, I didn't think about it that way. Or, you know, and it just sparks a new way of thinking. But if I'm hearing you correctly, you're saying, in order for this to turn into conversations, which is ultimately what most of us want to have happen, you need to get, you need to push them a little bit and give them what they need to take those first steps.

Jason Mlicki 8:12

Yep, we did. We actually literally just just got back a new research study last week that we're just starting to get into the marketplace. And it was a survey of executive decision makers and mostly large North American organizations. So $500 million, and up was like, organizations, 150, senior level executives, and we were asking them about how they use thought leadership and what they do in it. And I'm gonna point the date, I'll pull it up real fast. And I'll share it because it's really interesting, because it piggybacks what you just said, the two ways they use it the most, is first to determine the best way to solve a problem so that they have a concrete problem that they have their head wrapped heads wrapped around. Then they they they're using it to try to figure out the best solution. But the second way to use it is what you just said, which is to identify warning signs ahead. So it's like there's kind of like sort of I describe it as they're sort of constantly surveying what's going on looking for signs of disruption, and they're looking for thought leadership and thought leaders to give them some sense of what's what's out there that they're not thinking about. That's not on their radar. And those are the two most frequently cited use cases. And we've looked sort of across the buying journey, right from, you know, early warning signs to solution at hand, what do we do? And that was what kind of rose to the top so.

Susan Tatum 10:28

so a couple of questions that came to my mind. So the the one of them is there, you're saying that research, doing some research is fundamental and important to to having good thought leadership? And good thought leadership content, which makes sense what you're saying about, most of us are so focused on right where we are, and it's good, I think, to be focused on a niche. But if you're not, if you're only talking to a few people, and that's what you're pulling your, your opinions from them. That's not quite enough. But how involved does the research need to be and your working with some big companies? There they they can go to the rural pros to do this.

Jason Mlicki 11:10

Yep. That's a such a wonderful question. And I'm so glad you asked it. Because I always talked about this idea that there's big R research, and there's little R research. Big R research is the stuff, we have a client that is the National Center for the middle market, which is a research center, funded by private dollars at The Ohio State University. And the thought leadership that we produce in partnership with them is big R research, you know, so it could be 35, in depth questions, asked of a survey panel of 1000, CEOs, senior level decision makers in a very narrow niche, and we'll even get it down to the point where we'll, we'll we will assemble the survey design in lockstep with the with the marketplace. So so a middle market company that may we know that makeup of the middle market companies in America, and we use that to structure the survey design, big R research, it's great for organizations like their funding sponsors, which are chub and visa and Google right huge companies that really need statistical significance. With our smaller clients, I always talk about little R research, you don't have to have a perfect survey design, you can ask eight questions in a Survey Monkey, and fire it off on your email list and your social media. And you can get 70 or 100 responses, or you can partner up with a with a small panel, you know, organization. And these are not massive investments of money. I do this with one of our clients that asked me to speak at their events a lot. And I'll fly these like six questions surveys, 10 questions, or six questions 150 execs, and they don't cost me a fortune to get some insight back. And it just gives me some grounding. Because I have an opinion, I did this a lot during the pandemic where I had an opinion of what was going on inside of consulting firms, but it was based on my limited, you know, view of the firms I worked with and the firms I talked to. So I was like, I need some data to figure out if what I'm seeing is right or wrong. Or, you know, my other running joke is like, what if you think all of your clients are high fliers, and they're actually poor performers, and you don't even know it? Like, it'd be another problem like it's on your hands. Right? So that's what you're trying to figure out.

Susan Tatum 13:13

And then your recommendation is to talk to their existing clients and prospects or people that are sort of within their sphere.

Jason Mlicki 13:22

Yeah, and I would absolutely, I would do both. So I would do one thing is we're trying to encourage our clients to do more of is get some type of quant on this get some type of survey into the marketplace where you can get some data to work with. But then to your point, have real conversations with your best clients about what they think it means share that data and say, Does this jive with you? Does this make sense? Do you think, you know, how would you approach this based on this data? Or are you seeing something different in the marketplace? So if you can do both, that's actually where you tend to get the best insights? Because yeah, you know, a quant study tells you what companies are doing. But it's not telling you why or how. And that's what you get in sort of a qualitative conversation. Heck, you can get it in podcasts interviews, just like you're doing here. Right.

Susan Tatum 14:10


Jason Mlicki 14:11

You know, do 100 podcasts interviews, to the surprise what you learned, right?

Susan Tatum 14:14

Well, funny, you should mention that because my next question was going to be so I've been I have been talking to a lot of people about the I mean, we're, we're recording this at the end of July 2022. We are in a very rapidly changing economic environment. And what does that mean for consulting firms and professional services firms, you know, in in the, I think there's I think there's opportunity, and I think there's things that need to be done in order to be positioned correctly. And one of the things that you mentioned Jason, in your thought leadership ebook, and you were able to you were talking about who are the people that need thought leadership or how does it get used? And one of the things that you said was, if you carry or if you're carrying any kind of revenue, responsibility and part of part of your sales process, or what you need to be doing is reframing the client's notion of what they need or what their needs are. And that this is something that I've been hearing a lot of that we have to move from nice to have to I need to have this. And reminders of why it's good to have third party expert help. Yep. And thought leadership has got to play into that. I would think that's how you do it.

Jason Mlicki 15:30

Right. Yeah, I think you're spot on. I mean, I, it's funny to your to your first part of that comment is, when the pandemic first hit, I did a series of webinars, and I did them largely just to reassure and inspire the managing partners in firms that are in our database, right folks that follow our newsletter, or read our weekly blog digest. And a lot of what I talked about in that moment was like, I can't think of a better time ever for consulting firms than what was playing out, right? That because the swirl of noise around executives heads was massive, and they had no idea what to do. And they couldn't see five feet in front of themselves because of what was going on. And I can't think of a more important time to get objective advice. And I think we're kind of in one of those where it looks like we're walking into another one of those things where it's like, okay, you've got this, you've got this war, you've got inflation out of control, you've got these supply chain issues still playing out. I just can't think of a time when again, executives are in the same boat, like how do I navigate through this and get to the other side? And what does the other side even look like? I think they're still trying to figure out what the other side of the pandemic looks like. And now they can't even focus on that, because they're trying to figure out what the other side of this next thing looks like. Right? So it's like, I think, I think it's a wonderful time to be to be owning and running a consulting firm right now, because of all of this swirling chaos. And to your point, if you can bring coherence to that and make some sense of it and give actionable advice that, you know, clients will lean right into that.

Susan Tatum 17:06

So what kind of what kind of tips or advice could you offer for for these professional services firms that are either haven't started doing thought leadership yet? Or they're maybe they're doing what they think is thought leadership and not getting a great result from it? What would you advise them? How to Get Started? Or how to get on the right track?

Jason Mlicki 17:31

Yeah, that's a great question. So let's start with the first one. If they haven't done it yet, I think the best place to start with a couple of thoughts, the best place to start is, obviously, with conversations with clients about their most pressing issues, I mean, just pick up, you know, look in the Rolodex and schedule 10 15 client calls that are just fact finding missions where you just go have conversations with them and say, What are you most concerned about right now? What are the pressures you're facing the most were the challenges you're facing the most? What are the roadblocks that are really keeping your organization from getting where it wants to go? Do 10 or 15 of those calls, and then triangulate on a handful of topics that you feel like you can own and make sure that that those topics are in line with your your firm's capabilities and strategy, one of the biggest things you want to be careful of is orphan topics, topics that, you know, yeah, clients care deeply about inflation right now. But if you don't have a solution to help them manage through that, then you're not helping. So don't ignore those topics. Right. So that's kind of one second comment on that first part, I would say is just if you're, if you have no program in place, and you haven't taken any, even a first step, don't feel like you've got to boil the ocean coming out of the gate, right, like just lower the bar a little bit, don't feel like you have to write an HBr quality article or totally shake the marketplace with the first thing you publish, be okay with just good. Be okay with just getting the muscle bill to get people in your organization, okay with sharing their opinion, because a lot of people are scared to death of doing that. And you have to give them comfort and space to do that. And it's okay, if they write some stuff that you like, that's not that great. We've been on this journey for a decade at our agency. And in the beginning, there was some stuff written I'm sure by me too where it was pretty lousy. But I always just gave people space and encouragement because I knew at the end of the day, if they're gonna build those chops, they have to have time to do it and you can't rush them to the table. Now on the on the second question you asked about, you know, if they're doing it and it's not working or not seeing what they would like to see out of it. I think the thing that you want to do is, get a survey a survey is the wrong word. Look at the content that you have and ask yourself a couple of fundamental questions. Do you believe it's good And when I say good, what I mean is, is it relevant to the client you deal with? Does it? Does it demonstrate depth? Like, is there depth and thinking that helps them really understand? What, you know? What? What, how your ability to solve the problem. Is it? Is there evidence, you know, Is there proof that what you're saying that organizations should do, works? And then finally, is it feasible? So, meaning like, is there other steps? I mean, is it something that people can look at and say, oh, yeah, I not only is there evidence that this will work, but I have some sense of the process on how to get going. And if you don't feel comfortable doing that, get someone to help you, right get whether, you know, whether it's an advisor, like us, or even just a good friend, a good writer, someone who, who has some strong business acumen. And so just read through some of our stuff, and tell us what you think, and make some some quality dynamics. And if you go through all of that, you still think our content is pretty darn good, but we're still not getting what you want, then the next thing you might look at is, is, is where it's being published, right? You know, are you are you only self publishing other other venues you could be publishing is your thinking good. And it's just not getting seen? Because, you know, you haven't built the muscle to go start conversations with industry publications, or business journals or, or whatever, wherever your clients are that that you're not. So.

Susan Tatum 21:22

So I know, in your, in your handbook, thought the thought leadership handbook, you've got you lay out what your process is. And really, I think how to get to the strategy and decide what you're going to what it where you're going to focus and some very important things there. And again, I'm gonna encourage everybody to read that. And we'll put the link in the show notes. What is more tactically? What do you need? So you, you've got this ebook that's quite in depth about, and in a good way, about thought leadership. And then there's blog articles, there's articles that are published other places that are posted on LinkedIn, where where does it start? May Do you but do you try to get it all together? at once in one thing, or do you piecemeal it together? Does it depend?

Jason Mlicki 22:15

Yeah, I think it depends. I think, you know, I saw some great advice from a Google evangelists named Avinash Kaushik, I think is his name a few years ago, maybe you know, of him, a lot of people know of him. And his advice, somebody gave him this advice early on, he was starting a blog. And they said, well, think of your blog, like chapters in a book and make a list of all the chapters that would go into a book, and then write a blog post for every one of them. And if you do that, after about a year or two, you'll have a book. So the ebook that you really like, actually, that's how it was written. So over the course, I went back after years of writing about thought leadership and researching thought leadership, and I went through everything that I had written over the course of about five years. And I pieced it together into a chapter guide. And then I looked at it and said, Okay, where are the holes, because I'm missing stuff. And I wrote the stuff that was missing. And then I assembled it into up into a book. So I think that's one way to go about it. You know, obviously, the other way to go about it is to build that center piece of content first. So start with the deep research and those killer insights and then build a longer form piece and then and then deconstruct it, right. So right, you launch the piece, the big piece, and you deconstruct it, which is a lot of how a lot of agencies like ours would work, because it's easier for us to dig into a meaty topic, you know, in one pass with a client than it is to drip out a program over and over time, sometimes not always. And we have clients engaged both ways. So my so anyway, I think, I love that advice that Kaushik gave me because, you know, I think I've written 30,000 words a year for 10 years. And you know, at some point I was like, you know, what, if I had thought that way, I probably would have like five business books written but you know, I don't think any good but yeah, there would be out there.

Susan Tatum 24:03

I think what I like about the putting it in a blog first is it gives you it gives you an opportunity to test some of your ideas as well. If you putting in the blog, and then you're using social media and your your newsletter list or whatever, to get some feedback on it. I think that can be helpful. I would like to think that the the I think the best books out there are the ones that have been thought through and do have some as you were saying some proof behind it. So it's not just, oh, I had this great idea. I'm gonna write a book.

Jason Mlicki 24:37

Yeah, of course, in business, the business genre, how much how much of it is that right? You know, it's it's reframing the same concepts and a diff with different language. And I think that we're all kind of done with that, right? So it's like, I need to bring me some new insight that I'm just not seeing. I've been listening to a book, I won't, I won't give the title. And I'm halfway through it. And it's been interesting. But I have yet to figure out how to practically apply any of what the author's saying. And it's a very successful book, and I'm a little frustrated with it. Because I'm thinking, Well, you know, I've given this, you know, easily six or seven hours of my time, and at the end of this, I don't know, that I'll have I'll have a clear set of steps steps that I can move on. And I think that's a, this day and age, that's a failure, you know, that might have been okay, 20 years ago, but I think these days, I just don't think that's, that's where you need to be.

Susan Tatum 25:24

Well, yeah, and you've changed my my thinking a little bit about the importance of having those action steps that you can take. I think a lot of people said, well, if I give them the action steps, then they're just gonna go do it without me. Well, yeah, but they probably would have done that anyway. I mean, these people are not really here.

Jason Mlicki 25:43

And they'll probably fail, right? Right? If your expertise and your guidance is valuable, and in most cases it is, they'll struggle to implement on their own. And then they'll ask for help. And then they will be a kid, there will be folks that will figure it out on their own and, and they'll get by with whatever they get by with

Susan Tatum 26:02

just validates the process. That's, that's fine.

Jason Mlicki 26:03

Yeah, that's exactly. I have a random thought before we, I have a pretty strong belief that this is gonna sound bad. But you know, consulting firms are really good at discovering solutions that are already in the marketplace and then repackaging them and selling them to folks who have can't do we haven't figured them out, right?

Susan Tatum 26:23


Susan Tatum 26:23

And I don't mean that to sound flippant about consultants and consulting firms. They're my core clientele. But I think that's what you also have to remember is that that's part of this process, is that you there's probably a solution out there that's better than the one that's in your head, you need to find it.

Susan Tatum 26:37

Interesting. Interesting. Well, I know that you have a hard stop coming up. And but but I want to ask you about your conference that you've got going on that thought leadership conference in November.

Jason Mlicki 26:47

Yeah, thank you so much for asking I Yeah, we run a conference. This is the sixth year we've done it. It's called profiting from thought leadership. This is the first year we've done on the west coast. So in the last five we did in Boston and online in 2020. And this year, we brought the west coast and Dana Point, California just south of LA. And really excited about it, it's sort of what we do is we have best practices talks from folks that that run thought leadership programs for large organizations. So you know, we'll have speakers from Bain and Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey and Deloitte and Accenture, an emphasis in Salesforce. And we'll have some thought leaders there folks like Tom Davenport, people that, you know, he was one of the original authors of kind of like machine learning concepts back in the mid 2000s. And so it's a best practices place where you can learn about how, you know, big organizations tackle these things that you can then take back and apply into a smaller firm or a smaller organization. And then there's a training day as well. So there's a training day where we do training around, you know, how to develop big ideas, how to produce research, how to run campaigns, so you can sort of get into the weeds with us, like me, and my partner's into producing the conference. And we share a lot of research there, they're kind of you know, it's it's just a very kind of it's it's very, very wide spanning couple of days. And the URL is for anybody that's interested.

Susan Tatum 28:18

And I noticed that you did throw in a part that gets you to take action.

Jason Mlicki 28:22

I tried.

Susan Tatum 28:23

Alright, well, Jason, thank you so much. And, you know, I am going to ask you to come back and talk about lead generation, because you know, just as much about that as you do about thought leadership.

Jason Mlicki 28:34

well, I'm happy to do it. So at anytime, of course, and, and like you said, I am in the process, we will be publishing a lead gen handbook that similar to the thought leadership one, hopefully, this month,

Susan Tatum 28:47


Jason Mlicki 28:47

So that once I get it done, I'll get it over to you and you can then read it and tell me if you think it's worthy of a podcast discussion. If it is we'll do it.

Susan Tatum 28:55

All right. Well, thanks, Jason, and take care.


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