B2B marketers know they need to invest in thought leadership, and many have indeed invested more during the last few years. Making the most of these investments, however, rests on having the right answers to a set of difficult questions:
- What topics should we highlight?
- How should we produce and package thought leadership content?
- How should we promote it?
- How can we measure success?
ITSMA's announcement last week of the winners of its annual Marketing Excellence Awards featured two great examples of thought leadership marketing from IBM and Deloitte. Although few companies have committed to thought leadership investment at anywhere near the level of IBM and Deloitte, the basic lessons from their winning initiatives are totally applicable to any B2B firm that needs thought leadership.
Full disclosure: I served as a judge for this year's awards program and used to run the whole program when I worked for ITSMA. And, yes, I cast my votes for both winning initiatives, so was pleased that the other judges agreed.
The Global CEO Study
IBM's biennial Global CEO Study is a massive undertaking focused on digging deep into top CEO concerns around the world. The 2008 edition, "The Enterprise of the Future," involved face-to-face interviews with 1,130 CEOs and public sector leaders from large organizations in some 40 countries. Released publicly in May 2008, the core report highlighted five strategic attributes that CEOs are trying to build into their organizations:
- Hungry for change
- Innovative beyond customer imagination
- Globally integrated
- Disruptive by nature
- Genuine, not just generous
The Risk Intelligent Enterprise
Deloitte's Risk Intelligent Enterprise program also addresses some meaty concerns: how companies should think about risk at the most strategic level. Through a series of white papers and other thought leadership publications and activities, Deloitte has taken a strong stand on what "risk intelligence" actually means, how it relates to business strategy, and how to operationalize it across the organization in even the most complex environments.
Perhaps most important, the Deloitte program highlights the idea that risk management is not just about avoiding overly risky behavior, but also about taking intelligent risks in a properly managed way to support growth and change.
Based on ongoing research as well as Deloitte's extensive experience working on risk management with companies of all stripes, the Risk Intelligent Enterprise program helps companies understand one of today's most critical management issues in a thoughtful, creative, and responsible way.
Stepping back from the specifics of these two initiatives, I see six general lessons for thought leadership marketers at any level:
- Put Customers First. It sounds obvious to say that thought leadership marketing should focus on what your customers really care about, but far too many marketers take a product- or solution-first approach and try to fit some larger issue neatly around their offering. Buyers don't care about your offerings by themselves; they have their own problems to worry about. Engage them where they live. IBM is trying to build relationships with CEOs, so they research and talk about what other CEOs are doing. Deloitte works especially closely with Boards of Directors, CFOs, and other C-level executives; it's hard to think of a C-suite issue more pressing these days than risk management. What do your customers and prospects really are about?
- Do the Research. Thought leadership without real research is just opinion, and opinions are a dime a dozen. Show buyers serious research, though, and they're much more likely to pay attention. You might not be able to interview 1,130 CEOs around the world, but you can survey and interview your customers and prospects, produce serious case studies (not puff piece "success stories"), and comb the literature and online conversation to produce new insights.
- Say Something New. Thought leadership without a differentiated point of view is just an echo of conventional wisdom. Why should customers listen to your version then they've already heard it before -- or if you're only telling them something they already know. Smart customers want to be challenged. If you're not sparking at least some disagreement and debate, you probably haven't said anything new. None of IBM's five attributes are themselves shockingly new but the synthesis suggests and aggressive and innovative approach that goes well beyond conventional thinking. Deloitte's focus on the upside as well as the downside of risk clearly stands apart from the post-Wall Street collapse mentality of compliance first, last, and always.
- Build a Pervasive Presence. Long gone are the days when thought leadership marketing meant publishing a white paper, research report, or journal article and then moving on to the next project. Media fragmentation, information overload, and the power of social media make it critical that thought leadership marketers put substantial energy into getting the word out across a broad range of media and activities. IBM's 360 degree campaign for the CEO study included traditional activities (email, Web, direct mail, advertising, press and analyst briefings, sales enablement, video, etc.) as well as a number of newer approaches (blogs, podcasts, online innovation jams, and branded content). IBM also produced 15 "flavors" of the main report for different industries and C-suite positions. Deloitte has similarly tapped a wide variety of media and activities to engage clients, prospects, and market influencers. For thought leadership marketing today, think multi-media, social media, and complementary online and offline engagement to build a strong presence wherever your stakeholders already spend their time.
- Stick with It. IBM's CEO study is a two year project, and the 2008 version is IBM's third such study. To maximize marketing impact, IBM organizes a "teaser phase" (outreach to build awareness before the formal launch), a "reveal phase" (a multi-faceted public launch to build buzz internally and externally), and a "sustain phase" (ongoing engagement to dig more deeply into the issues with customers and others). Deloitte launched the Risk Intelligent Enterprise effort in 2006 and has continued to explore the issues, refine the point of view, publish, and engage. The point is to pick a core issue for your customers and stick with it. Thought leadership takes time. It's better to pick one or two issues and work them hard for several years than to flit from one issue to the next in a more superficial way.
- Confirm the metrics. Far from an airy initiative, thought leadership marketing can and should focus on core metrics essential to business development and growth. Objectives for the IBM initiative revolved around relationship building with CEOs, corporate visibility and interest, ongoing engagement with key contacts, and sales leads. Deloitte takes a similar approach, focusing on competitive differentiation, influencer relations, client connections, and business development support. Setting and gaining organizational agreement on clear marketing and business development objectives provides the grounding and accountability that marketers need to justify the necessary investments.
Serious thought leadership marketing is not easy, but taking these six lessons to heart will go a long way toward success. At least that's my opinion! What do you think?