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Mastering Search in a Niche Space | William Vanderbloemen

Mastering Search in a Niche Space | William Vanderbloemen | 536


Going deep in a narrow space for great success.

An interview with William Vanderbloemen about building a successful search business by understanding the needs of his audience.

When the time comes to hire someone new, how can you tell if you have the right candidate?

Plenty of thought leaders can tell you that even the best programs often have knowledge gaps, between what is learned in school and what it takes to do a job from day to day.

Our guest today is William Vanderbloemen. William’s been a senior pastor for 15 years, and comes from a strong HR background at Fortune 200 companies. He is the founder of the Vanderbloemen Search Group, helping churches, schools, nonprofits, family offices, and values-based businesses find key staff, and also the author of Search: The Pastoral Search Committee Handbook, the go-to guide for creating a pastoral succession plan.

William shares his journey into thought leadership, starting with his blog on how to build, run, and maintain a great team. As his business expanded, he instituted a content quota for everyone in the business, literally making thought leadership a companywide responsibility.

With so many contributors to the content pool, it would be easy to get off track. William describes how they’ve created detailed “personas” (also called “avatars”) to guide their marketing. These “personas” are clearly defined, allowing them to address specific, identifiable pain points. Additionally, William shares how these personas are regularly updated to keep up with the changing world.

Finally, William discusses his book Search: The Pastoral Search Committee Handbook, which targets a micro-niche audience but has sold 60000 copies and secured him a spot as the go-to guy when churches are seeking a succession plan. William shares how the book is full of quantitative data with qualitative stories, giving data-driven facts instead of opinions.

This conversation demonstrates how you can find great success by getting super focused on your audience and how you can accomplish that.

Three Key Takeaways:

  • If you create target avatars to guide content creation, update them often – and be sure to know their current challenges!
  • Content-based marketing and thought-based leadership that doesn’t come from the top it’s not going to work in the organization.
  • Clickbait might get immediate attention, but thought leadership earns you a loyal following!

If you need a strategy to bring your thought leadership to market, Thought Leadership Leverage can assist you! Contact us for more information. In addition, we can help you implement marketing, research, and sales. Let us help you so you can devote yourself to what you do best.



Peter Winick And welcome, welcome, welcome. This is Peter Winick. I’m the founder and CEO of Thought Leadership Leverage. And you’re joining us on the podcast, which is leveraging thought leadership today. My guest is William Vanderbloemen, and he’s got an interesting background in that he’s got a combination of 15 years of ministry experience as a senior pastor. That in and of itself is not brand new in the thought leadership space. But he is the founder of a group called the Vendor Bloomin Search Group, which has focused on search primarily in the, I would say, the church field. He’s got an HR background from the Fortune 200 side and he does a lot of speaking. He’s written a couple of books. So it’s a good example of the use of thought leadership as a differentiator in an otherwise commoditized although niched out market. So welcome aboard William. Interesting story.

William Vanderbloemen Yeah, thanks Peter. And I got to tell you, we sort of if we end up being a success long term, we probably ought to contact Malcolm Gladwell and have us be an appendix to the Outliers book because it was just right place, right time. And, you know, we started the search firm in the fall of 2008, which was a brilliant time to quit your job and start something new. But that aside, it was the same month Twitter came out. It was so there’s just this convergence and we sort of fell into this thing long before I knew you or anything. We were like, you know, there’s a big knowledge gap between what you learn. So I went to Princeton for seminary. I didn’t learn anything about how to run a staff or build a team. I was just not part of the curriculum because it’s not Ivy League theological education. So we said, All right, let’s start the company. This blogging thing is new. Why don’t we just offer free resources for people that are thought leadership on how to build and run and keep a great team.

Peter Winick So stay there for a minute, though, because I would argue that this might sound strange, but seminary, like lots of other places, call it law, call it Mediterranean, whatever it might be, that are tasked with developing professionals with a, you know, at a high caliber, particularly a place like Princeton High specialty, whether it’s medicine passed or whatever, they don’t do the business stuff, right? Like how do you eat people? How do you manage? How do you run a piano?

William Vanderbloemen How do you how do you read a piano?

Peter Winick Yeah, yeah, exactly. It’s so there’s a huge gap there. Now you could go out and be the greatest pastor ever is as it relates to the work. But if you’re not savvy enough on the business side, it’s not going to be sustainable.

William Vanderbloemen And Peter, it’s not even just the business side. It’s the whole build, run and keep a great team. And for a lot of people in the faith-based world, whether it’s a nonprofit or a school or a church, they’re using volunteers. So no one ever taught me, How do you fire a volunteer? Like that’s a whole different meaning. So, you know, we parked on this content thing. It really took off. Even got to a place where there is a content quota on everyone in the companies. Had everyone had to contribute content. For some, it might be an infographic, for others it might be a podcast, for others it might be a written piece. But we just sort.

Peter Winick Of I don’t mean to wrap you, but stay there for a second because a lot of people in lots of organizations talk about embracing thought leadership at an organizational level because it drives business outcomes, whether that’s differentiating the firm, attracting clients, whatever, whatever. But I love what you said is your put your money where your mouth is and saying everybody’s got a quota, right? So you might have, you know, in essence, a search is a sales function, right? So there might be a sales quota, but now you’re having people create thought leadership at a quota level. That’s interesting, right? So is other folks that just say, yeah, that’s not for me. I don’t fancy myself a writer, or do you support them from a capabilities development stamp?

William Vanderbloemen Yeah. Well, so as the company’s gotten bigger, we’ve had to learn new things. But in general, if you’re not willing to produce some form of content for us, you’re probably not going to get hired. It’s clear in the interview process now that has gotten more lax as we’ve gotten bigger and we have more specializations. Okay. But even down to like. Office manager like do an interview with me on successful tips for office. Like, we’ll find a way to make some content. And the fun thing, Peter, if you got a listener out there who’s like, I wonder if my team could create content. We did a thing where we and we totally stole this from a friend of mine, Brian Halligan, who started HubSpot.

Peter Winick Oh, it’s you’re the pastor that steals it, isn’t that right? They don’t teach that at Princeton was nothing.

William Vanderbloemen Nothing new under the sun. Peter It’s in that’s in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Bible, but nothing new. So Brian said, run with it. And the idea was this is like, what if we did a contest where everybody produces a blog and a unified way of measuring like click thrus or, you know, page views, whatever the thing is you pick. And whoever has the most popular blog post wins two free roundtrip first class tickets, domestic anywhere you want to go in the next year. And you know, we have a bunch of points. So it wasn’t a huge Yeah. Material investment but man, he Brian told me, you’ll be surprised they’ll be somebody on your staff that is not a writer and their stuff will stick. And we’ve found that to be absolutely true. The intern won the contest and then became somewhat of a ghostwriter for a lot of people for many years. But all that to say I couldn’t be more in your corner for what you’re trying to do. You know, we are in an industry that is.

Peter Winick I want to push on another thing. I’m sorry to interrupt you say go for it. I like making a contest. Right. Because people love contest. I like winning things, whatever. But what you said and I and this is where I want to push a little bit, is the most popular. So when it comes to thought leadership, there’s a you know, there’s a struggle with what are the right metrics because, you know, you could produce a beautiful piece of content that goes, quote, viral. But if it’s going to housewives in Minnesota and your mark, as a matter of fact, you’re at a church, you hit the bull’s eye, but it’s the wrong target. Right. So how do you how do you stay focused and keep your organization focused on what popular means or what the right target or metric means? Because it’s.

William Vanderbloemen Really. Well, we probably need to update this, Peter. We probably to hire you or somebody, but we’re old school with our content based marketing developed our four personas that we write to the very clear committee member, committee member Carol, Pastor Paul, you know, all staff member Sally and I forget the other one. And then there’s the anti persona that we don’t write to because they never buy from us. We love them, but they never buy from us. So there’s just not any point except maybe to do some help along the way and maybe some. Yeah, but I know that’s old school. I know marketing.

Peter Winick You know, but no, but stay on the persona thing. We call them avatars, which is whatever.

William Vanderbloemen Same thing we’ve got. Okay. Pastor Paul drives this car. Pastor Paul loses sleep because of these three things. Pastor Paul sees this as a win. Pastor Paul gets frustrated with this. So we write to those pain points. Same with committee member Carol staff member Sally and I should know the fourth one, but I can’t remember.

Peter Winick No. So I love how but I love how fluid you are in that, in that the ultimate litmus test is when someone, anyone, your office manager, whoever is putting out a piece of content who is this written for. And it might be a great piece which oh geez, it doesn’t. Yeah, it’s not really written for any of ours. Therefore, even though it’s great, you know, no pun intended. Right. Church wrong. Pure right up uphill. I think a lot of people don’t have that discipline to say. I know sort of almost at a visceral level what, you know, Pastor Paul, what he drive, what he’s thinking, what’s keeping him up at night. There are some evergreen things that you could assume would always he’d always be thinking about. And then there’s some things that are going on based on whatever what’s going on in the world, what’s going on in the market.

William Vanderbloemen Oh, Peter, we had to we had to do you know, we have a here’s the profile of Pastor Paul and we updated every now and then. But during the shutdown, like we had to update it daily. Yeah they were think we’re worried about tomorrow so it’s their fixed personas but the pain points we try and keep an eye on and make sure we’re doing what’s current and not what we’ve always done.

Peter Winick If you’re enjoying this episode of Leveraging Thought Leadership, please make sure to subscribe. If you’d like to help spread the word about our podcast, please leave a five-star review at and share it with your friends. We’re available on Apple Podcasts and on all major listening apps as well as that thought leadership

So I love what you’re doing and how do you then. In my opinion, and feel free to push back. You know, there’s different reasons business wise to use thought leadership at different times. One could be elevate the brand, stand out from the competition. Another would be stay connected during the long sales cycle. Another could be client attraction. You know, there’s another could be creating a sense of awareness in a new market that you want to test. How does that play for you? Like, where is it all the time? Some of them are huge.

William Vanderbloemen And it goes back to, I don’t know, I think content based marketing, thought based leadership. If it’s not coming from the top, it’s not going to work in the organization. So all of it flows from sometimes my good experience, sometimes my bad, my bad experience. When I was a senior pastor at church, I probably should put the school in there. They’re 200 to 300 people on payroll, something like that. And I needed some help finding a staff person. So I tried hiring a search firm. Every time I talked to the guy out, maybe he was a nice guy. I don’t know him, but after every phone call, I felt like I needed to take a shower. It was so bad. It was so sleazy. It was. You know, every time you see a search firm in a Mad Men, the drunk guy becomes the search guy. And then they meet the alleys and, like, it’s like it’s not cool, right? So for me, that bad experience before I ever got a search, maybe say, I don’t care if we don’t make money, we will not be a vendor. We will be a trusted advisor.

Peter Winick Yes.

William Vanderbloemen So for me, it’s just a very personal crusade to say thought leadership trumps clickbait. Right? And the first.

Peter Winick Time there a minute because people there’s you know, this. Tension, if you will, between what is content marketing and thought leadership. And it’s not that one is better than the other, right? But they’re just different. So content marketing to me, if I was producing diapers, if I’m Procter and Gamble, I’d put Procter and Gamble. I put out a lot of stuff to teach new moms how to avoid diaper rash, what I call the fall leadership. Absolutely not. Would it be content marketing that’s really aligned to the product and the offering? So to me, the thought leadership is a higher level, right? And yes, you have to take a little bit of risk. Not everyone has to agree with what you think, but you need to be able to justify what you say. It’s not just opinion based on experience. Yeah. Yeah.

William Vanderbloemen So nine years ago, I looking out over the horizon, which the thing is part of my job, I could see, you know, baby boomers are retiring. They’re not. Many Gen Xers take their place. The Millennials are not ready yet. There’s going to be a succession crisis. Yep. And particularly in churches for a lot of reasons because we had all this data. So I said, I want to write a book on pastoral succession. My mother said, I guess I’ll have to buy all 12 copies, huh? Who’s going to buy a book? And so I met with the publisher and they said, This is micro niche. If you sell 2500 copies ever, it’s a grand slam, like, fine. And they said, What do you define as a win? I said, Here’s how I define it as win win. This book is in every seminary library in the country. That’s the win, because it’s no longer How many did we sell? It’s oh, they wrote the book on that. That to me is thought leadership. It’s not just number one.

Peter Winick And number two would be, you know, I was at a fairly well very well well-known author on podcast a couple of months ago. And one of the things he said to me was over his career and he’s been blessed that he’s got, you know, 3 or 4 books that have been multiple New York Times bestsellers because I probably literally sold a million books. There are literally five books, individual copies that have made him over a million each. But he didn’t know which ones they were at the time he wrote them. So. You know, publishers by definition only have one metric of success. We sell times profit per unit equal X. I would argue for your book, if you’ve got a dozen net new transactions or net new clients with a lifetime value of multiple transactions over, you know, ten years, that’s a grand that is a phenomenal success. So I think you need to, you know, get out of the publishing industrial complex’s version of success because your book, you know, a book like that, you know, maybe your mom’s a little bit conservative there, but it’s not going to be in an airport. It’s not going to be on my bookshelf. I’m not your demographic.

William Vanderbloemen But it’s sold 60,000 copies and it’s in its sixth printing. Wow. So, I mean, it’s a tiny little niche. Who buys a book on this? This is like if you have six toes, buy this book. Like it’s that weird so.

Peter Winick That your mom returned the other 11 that she bought.

William Vanderbloemen Exactly. Now it’s been and it has been in our sales funnel. Well, they wrote the book on this because now there’s a lot of, you know, the highest form of flattery is imitation. Right. So I got a little flattery in the last eight years. But when it comes down to who do we hire for the succession planning and the surge? I can’t tell you the number of times for like, well, they did write the book on it before we ever looked at a consultant. We bought a case of his books and read it because that’s got all the stats. And I’ve tried to make the books, not William’s opinion about this, that or the other. And you tell me the right term for this. I totally made up this term, but I’ve tried to write books that are called books, quantitative data with qualitative stories that that aren’t just my ruminations, but are actually kind of data driven.

Peter Winick Yeah. No, I think that’s part of the definition of thought leadership. It can’t just be here’s what I think now. It could be. Here’s what I think because I’ve been doing X for 30 years, whatever the shelf life, no pun intended, again on the book. So one of the thing that’s interesting, your book is a principle based book now. Things will change and evolve. And, you know, like you mentioned during the lockdown, pastors didn’t have to deal with how do I get people to come to me? Well, we know where they went on Sundays, but now with Zoom and all this other sort of.

William Vanderbloemen Yeah, yeah.

Peter Winick Principal place book or what I would call sort of an evergreen book like you wrote, should have a shelf life of 5 to 10 years, like people that your team is sending that book out today. Don’t look at it and go, Oh, that’s three years old or six years old. That’s yesterday’s news. No, it’s incredibly relevant to them at that moment where they’re in this situation where you’re most relevant.

William Vanderbloemen Well, you know, it’s funny, this is off topic, but the publisher came back to us. Let’s say it was released in 13 or 14, something like that. Maybe it was released in 15. I don’t remember. Anyway, in 19, they came back to us and said, Can you do an updated and revised? And yeah, well, yes, we’ve got more research than ever so we added It’s a way better book. It’s got to be more pages of research and graphs and charts. And here it’s like you can predict the future based on all this data we have and done very well. People don’t want a book that’s 150 extra pages. And it’s So there’s.

Peter Winick How many pages was the first one?

William Vanderbloemen Well, I mean, font size and page size and all that. It was 75,000 words. So it was.

Peter Winick Just standard business book. But that’s okay.

William Vanderbloemen Yeah. Yeah, yeah. So and it went up to I don’t know if it went to 110,000 or something like that, but the feedback.

Peter Winick Bordering on the textbook. Then at that point.

William Vanderbloemen The feedback we’ve gotten is, can you send us the original?

Peter Winick So is there a Ted Talk on this? Right.

William Vanderbloemen It should be right. Yeah, it’s interesting.

Peter Winick Well, this has been great. I love the path that you’ve taken using the one. You’ve got a really niche business, but then the path that you’ve taken to differentiate because search is a commodity like almost every other professional service. Right? And to be known as the guy that wrote the book is you know, it’s interesting. You know, you said the book is almost ten years old now. People are still coming to you with that reputation. And even if there are others that are, quote, flattering you at this point, you still say, well, our book came out ten years ago and we you know, we’ve been do this a long time. So there’s a lot of Johnny come lately. Good for them. That’s cool. But we’ve got more depth, more experience, more placements under our belt, whatever the case may be.

William Vanderbloemen Well, and what’s interesting, one sign to me that it’s evergreen is we’ve got a new book coming out that is a very quiet call book. It’s not limited to churches. It’s What have you learned? What are the telltale signs of the best of the best? The unicorns that you interview and can you spot them quicker or. What we didn’t realize was, after all the research, it’s not just about spotting them. We can actually teach people to become that, right? So back to the first book. It’s not even this book isn’t even out yet, but the pre-sales, any time the presales for the new book bump, all the other books bump to it’s like they’re evergreen. So it’s just interesting to see.

Peter Winick It’s just been great.

William Vanderbloemen To see where the next one’s release takes us. It’s not it’s very intentionally not designed for pastors to read. If they want to read it, that’s fine. But this so you help me here. But in the thought based leadership, I know how to write to reach pastors. Or heads of school or heads of nonprofit organizations. Finding their board chair is a whole different thing because they don’t have a common watering hole, for example. So this is more, okay, let’s go a little mainstream. Let’s show the world what we’ve learned about talent and how to find talent. Maybe it’ll help some people become better at what they do, and maybe it’ll lead some chairs. The board say, Hey, we need a new CEO for the Bowery or whatever. Yeah. You know, the thing is, and they’re thought leaders. They. They’ve done their homework.

Peter Winick Yeah, I love it. What’s been great? Appreciate your time and sharing your journey with us. Thank you, William. Thanks. To learn more about thought leadership leverage, please visit our website at to reach me directly. Feel free to email me at Peter at And please subscribe to leveraging thought leadership on iTunes or your favorite podcast app to get your weekly episode automatically.

Peter Winick has deep expertise in helping those with deep expertise. He is the CEO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Peter on Twitter!

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