Thought Leadership is one of the most widely used terms in B2B marketing. But there’s a range of opinion regarding what Thought Leadership is, and fuzzy expectations with respect to its tangible benefits.
Researching the term “Thought Leadership” yields everything from a sterile Wikipedia definition, to blog posts featuring marketing insights similar to this online gem:
“It doesn’t matter if you’re an entrepreneur, an employee, or a student – your ability to become a thought leader will catapult your success. A great way to accomplish this is on LinkedIn.”
And we wonder why the marketing discipline is held in such low regard.
Broadly, if Thought Leadership is a marketing strategy that leverages intellectual capital to engage target audiences, then there are two critical components and issues:
Content --- What qualifies as legitimate and effective Thought Leadership?
Application --- How should the content be applied to drive tangible business outcomes?
A coherent and concise description of bona fide Thought Leadership content is contained within a checklist (shown below) developed by Jeff Ernst, VP of Marketing at Forrester Research, who broadly describes the strategy as “expressing a viewpoint that influences others…” as a means to “generate conversations that build trusting relationships over time.”
It’s important to note that Thought Leadership should not be limited to pushing one’s own viewpoint. True Thought Leaders are those individuals or organizations that define what topics or issues are important, and also provide opinions on those topics (other than their own) that are worth listening to. Thought Leaders seek to manage, rather than control, the conversation.
For example, rather than featuring a message from your CEO in each issue of the company’s quarterly newsletter, consider publishing guest commentaries (not promotional messages) from clients, prospects, referral sources and recognized opinion leaders in your discipline. In return, you'll gain higher readership levels, greater credibility and top-of-mind awareness, and the likelihood that the client / prospect will distinguish your brand from competitors.
Merchandising Strategy Precedes Content Development
To the consternation of CXOs, some marketers employ Thought Leadership as though it embodied some mystical higher purpose; as a tactic that’s not held accountable for increasing leads, clients or revenue. Apparently through marketing osmosis, a brilliant OpEd piece in the Wall Street Journal or a rousing keynote presentation at an industry conference will somehow bolster a company’s balance sheet. All too often, Thought Leadership’s only benefit involves corporate egos.
Proper application of Thought Leadership-based content begins with development of a content merchandising strategy, involving two basic questions:
What measurable outcomes do we want our Thought Leadership to achieve (other than having people think we’re smart)?
How will we apply our Thought Leadership content (other than dropping it on our website) to achieve those measurable outcomes?
Creating any Thought Leadership content before fully addressing these two questions is akin to building a large sailboat in your basement. It may be a beautiful work of art, but you will never sail it around the lake.
Ultimately, the most effective merchandising of B2B Thought Leadership content yields credibility tools that:
support your company’s value proposition,
deliver an inherent 3rd party endorsement,
can be presented in a non-self-serving manner,
contain content that has a very long shelf life,
integrate seamlessly into your firm’s sales process,
engage target audiences in conversations that build relationships, and
drive tangible business results.
In fact, the acid test of effective Thought Leadership should not be based on your CEO’s level of satisfaction in seeing her byline in print. Instead, you’ll know that your Thought Leadership is effective when the head of sales or new business development is nipping at your heels regarding the campaign’s progress.