It establishes a person or company as a recognized authority, and then uses that position to generate profitable relationships.
Businesses generally focus on marketing their products or services. They may stress the benefits of what they sell, or how it performs better than the competition. However, what they often neglect to do is to market the business itself and the people who work in it. This is an enormous mistake. Most people who make a purchasing decision ask themselves whether they trust the company that they are buying from, and want to know that they are experts in their field.
This is exactly what thought leadership marketing is about. It establishes a person or company as a recognized authority, and then uses that position to generate profitable relationships. According to Daniel Rasmus, a noted business strategist, “Thought leadership should be an entry point to a relationship. Thought leadership should intrigue, challenge, and inspire even people already familiar with a company. It should help start a relationship where none exists, and it should enhance existing relationships.”
While thought leadership is important for any business, it is critical for B2B companies. While selling to consumers may involve establishing a position of authority, doing this is essential when selling to other enterprises. This is because of the length of time that B2B sales typically take and the large number of individuals who are usually involved. Thought leadership allows a company to define both a problem and a credible solution – acting as a mirror that B2B companies can hold up in front of their clients to help them to recognize their own needs.
The important thing to understand about thought leadership marketing is that it is not about trying to make a hard sale. The goal is to be invited into the conversation with a client, and to do that it is essential to be seen as offering impartial and valuable insights. Because of this, putting thought leadership material behind registration firewalls in order to collect marketing leads is a bad idea. For the same reason, thought leadership content should not be promotional, but instead should be given with no strings attached.
For a perfect example of thought leadership, take a look at Ken Fisher’s Betting Against Bernanke article. The piece provides a well-reasoned and interesting evaluation of the potential impact of the Federal Reserve reducing quantitative easing, and translates this into a concrete and actionable set of recommendations. There is no attempt to promote, yet it establishes Fisher as an authoritative investment advisor and makes you want to hear more.
When you are looking to establish thought leadership, keep in mind that your marketing people may find the best channels for communication, but the thought leadership itself needs to come from people who have knowledge, experience and a well-defined point of view. Marketing may indeed be a source of this, but you need to look further. Senior management, sales people and customer service representatives can all help you to establish thought leadership, and there is even a good case for getting customers to put forward their own unique viewpoints. Therefore, it is important that thought leadership activities are sponsored from the top down, so that people are encouraged to contribute and organizational barriers are eliminated.
In the past, thought leadership marketing used to be the domain of major consulting companies, accounting for as much as 20% of overall marketing investment, according to industry analyst Gartner. However, the use of thought leadership marketing is becoming more widely distributed, and is within the reach of any small to midsize business.
If you are interested in putting in place a thought leadership marketing initiative, then there are a number of things that you should focus on. First of all, thought leadership starts with understanding your customers. You may think you know what their burning issues are, but unless you really talk to them, you will be constantly surprised at what is actually on their minds. Make an effort to identify all the questions that your customers are asking – all of them. Then, prioritize them based on which have the biggest impact and which ones you can actually solve. Next, see who else is trying to answer these questions and how they are going about this. This will allow you to understand how you can differentiate yourself from the competition, and also may help you to identify people who can help you to establish thought leadership – including customers and industry analysts.
Once you have those answers – and remember that thought leadership is an ongoing process – then find a way of communicating these in an interesting and entertaining manner. Make sure that you come up with concrete examples and tell stories where appropriate. Finally, make sure that you market these answers using different formats and channels that make the information relevant to your audience, such as conferences, whitepapers and webcasts.
Ted Levin is a freelance writer and editor. He enjoys writing about social media, content marketing, and storytelling.