B2B marketers are often accused of speaking in buzzwords. One of those pieces of marketing lingo that we often use without a second thought is the phrase “Thought Leadership.”
Recently, my partner and I were talking with a client about a program
designed to establish thought leadership. Our client, with full candor, admitted that he thought he knew what we meant by thought leadership, but wanted to hear our definition of the phrase.
It’s a good question; ask 10 marketers what it means, and it’s likely you’ll get ten different answers.
Here’s our definition – along with an explanation of how thought leadership should be used to drive measurable business results.
Think about your friends – when you have a problem with a DIY project, there’s usually one “guy” (female or male) who you think to call first for advice. This “guy” probably didn’t become “your guy” overnight. Before “your guy” earned that level of trust and respect, you had conversations. You learned. You may have disagreed, or disregarded your guy’s advice and done things a different way. Regardless, you came to value your guy’s expertise – and believe that he or she has your best interests at heart.
Now apply this to your industry – you can probably name either the individuals or companies that seem to be setting the trends, coming up with big ideas, establishing expertise, and sharing ideas. Thought leaders aren’t the Donald Trumps of their industries; they’re not blatant self-promoters, nor are they the ones who shout the loudest or put their name on everything they touch.
By definition, thought leadership is a marketing strategy that positions you and your firm as “the guy” you call when you need to solve a problem. And, just like the friend you call for advice on your DIY project, a thought leader provides you with advice and opinion that helps you make better decisions -- whatever stage of the project you’re at.
Those conversations will result in commerce – but just as most individuals don’t propose marriage on the first date, these conversations will require time, investment, and patience to build a long-term relationship. Given enough effort, they might result in a marriage. They might not. But even the ones that don’t result in marriage have value; they teach your company more about who its best customers and prospects are – and aren’t.
Effective Thought Leadership – which can involve a broad range of marketing tactics – always addresses three questions upfront:
What do we do better than anyone else? (You can’t be a thought leader on every subject… where are your firm’s passions? Where do you have an opinion, a process, management models, data or real-world successes that can inform and inspire? Choose wisely.
What measurable business outcomes do we want our Thought Leadership to achieve (other than having people think we're smart)? Do we want to increase traffic to our website? Register for a newsletter? Download a white paper? Call an executive?
Exactly how will we employ our Thought Leadership "content" (other than dropping it on our website) to engage with decision-makers? The days of “build it and they will come” have long passed – how do we find and then engage the people we most want to reach?
Pursuing Thought Leadership tactics without first providing good answers to these questions is akin to building an over-sized sailboat in your basement. It may be a beautiful work of craftsmanship, but you will never sail it around the lake.
Here's a tip: True Thought Leaders seek to manage rather than to control the conversation. They determine the issues and voices worthy of attention, but do not exclusively push their own perspective. They also shine a light on the ideas of clients, prospects, referral sources and recognized authorities. By displaying the self-confidence to share the microphone, they are viewed as legitimate opinion leaders, not simply carnival barkers.
The true benefit of thought leadership is that by building trust and explaining how and why your firm believes what it does, it dramatically reduces the need to sell. It turns cold calls into warm calls, drives inquiries from people who are ready to buy, reminds current customers why they do business with you, and eliminates a large number of “tire kickers.”