Years ago, when I was a lowly graduate student at MIT, I learned an essential lesson about communications while taking a course on "framing" the news. The lesson, as my professor Bill Gamson so ably taught, was that he who frames the terms of the discussion is halfway home with a public debate before it even begins.
Politicians understand this the best. They (and their marketing consultants) spend lots of time crafting simple narratives with the goal of framing the debate. Back when I was in graduate school, the most obvious example was Ronald Reagan, who dominated the politics of the 1980s with the simple idea that government was "the problem." Most recently, it was the health care debate with dueling narratives about "government takeovers" and "universal coverage."
It's critical with B2B marketing, too. While trying to promote the value of our products, services, and solutions, we need to focus as well on the master narratives that frame the relevant market conversation. For example, technology and consulting companies pushing Green IT need to worry about the larger debate about the value of going green. Regardless of the merits of their offers, if the dominant narrative frame is skeptical, they'll have a much tougher job winning new business.
Ideally, you're leading that discussion or changing the terms of the debate. IBM did this recently with its Smarter Planet initiative. The company defined a new way of thinking about the role of technology in a whole host of social and economic issues. Others are now jumping on board, but if you buy into the frame, you're probably going to favor IBM.
Thought leadership marketing is supposed to create a master narrative for B2B organizations. It's the intellectual substance behind the basic brand promise.
Accenture does this with "High Performance. Delivered." The brand promise is helping clients become high performing companies; Accenture's thought leadership research and publications flesh out the story with data and case studies of how this actually happens.
HubSpot does this extremely well, too. The fast-growing provider of "inbound marketing" tools promotes the concept relentlessly with a daily dose of useful content for marketers on how to build awareness and generate leads through search engine marketing and social media. For small business marketers and consultants focused on social media and search, HubSpot's master narrative about the why and how of inbound marketing is beginning to frame the whole conversation.
The problem with so many B2B marketing programs, however, is that the master narrative is lacking. Even when companies invest in thought leadership, it's often with a fragmented collection of disconnected articles, white papers, videos, blogs, etc. There is no connecting tissue, or at least none that stands out from the competition and helps frame the larger industry conversation.
Topical consistency is the first challenge, but that is just a start. It's better to have a consistent flow of thought leadership content on the same basic subject than not, but if there is not a compelling and differentiated point of view to drive a sustained and integrated program, you stand little chance of framing the debate.
Here are two simple questions you might ask yourself to gauge progress with your master narrative:
- To what extent is there a "big idea" that animates your thought leadership marketing?
- To what extent does that idea currently drive the larger industry dialogue around a key customer concern?
If your answers are "not much," it may be time to step back from the crush of daily deadlines and ponder the possibilities.
Photo credit: jonny goldstein