I've just had the privilege of helping judge ITSMA's Marketing Excellence Awards, and was impressed in particular with the submissions in the Thought Leadership Marketing category.
As recently as five years ago, thought leadership marketing was mainly the province of the top consulting firms. Few other B2B firms took it seriously. Boy, has that changed! The submissions in this year's awards program reflect a substantial increase not only in spending but, more important, in the programmatic discipline that is necessary to make a serious impact with customers and market influencers.
I can't name names yet because ITSMA is still selecting finalists and then the ultimate winners. It's clear from the submissions, however, along with working with many of these companies over the years, that there are five important ways in which the best of the best stand apart from the crowd:
- Focus and depth: Lots of companies practice "random acts of content," dashing off periodic white papers, articles, videos, blog posts, and the like with little focus or depth. But when you're dealing with high level customers facing serious business challenges), the scattershot approach provides little value. Indeed, according to a major study of business technology buyers last year by ITSMA and Pierre Audoin Consulting, only 16% of these buyers believe that their solution providers are very helpful in showing them the possibilities to solve their business challenges. If you're going to join the ranks of the "very helpful," you need to pick one or a few issues, stick with it, and go deep.
- Do the research: A lot of so-called thought leadership is really just opinion, perhaps based on a project or two. Our customers want evidence, and evidence usually requires research. The best thought leadership programs are built around serious research, including analysis of existing literature, new customer surveys, and in-depth case studies. One of the main reasons that the industry analyst firms remain so influential with buyers is that they are constantly cranking out new research. (Yes, marketers sometimes question the quality of that research, but it is generally miles ahead of the "thought leadership" content that vendors themselves produce.) To help make "thought leadership" worthy of the term, start from the beginning and don't skimp on the research.
- Engage and empower internally. Too often, marketers publish thought leadership content but forget to tell anyone else in the organization. At best, this can mean losing the opportunity to have more colleagues representing that good thinking in the marketplace. At worst, customers start asking your people questions on an issue about which they have no idea. Especially as you begin to integrate social media across the business, you want more people engaging directly with customers, prospects, and other stakeholders. Engaging and empowering your customer-facing employees with thought leadership gives them something valuable to talk about, and can quickly become an essential multiplier for overall program impact.
- Leverage your best content. Market engagement today is about pervasive presence and ongoing conversation, not just traditional publishing and speaking. Customers want to chew over and debate your ideas, often without you in the [virtual] room. To help make this happen, you need to leverage your best thought leadership content by publishing compelling bits and bytes in appropriate formats across the networks and channels where your customers congregate. If you're working on a white paper, for example, you want to think: Is there a short video we can produce? Where can we blog about this? What articles can we publish? Where are there opportunities to brief our best customers on our new thinking? Is there a debate I can set up?
- Invest in expertise. Ultimately, great thought leadership programs are built around experts -- experts in the subjects at hand, of course, but also experts in research, analysis, publication, social media, and collaboration. The most successful programs invest in their people in at least three ways: Funding full time staff positions, recruiting for necessary skills and helping existing staff develop the right skills, and investing in partnerships for complementary capabilities (including brand recognition, as with prestigious academics, universities, and/or outside media and research organizations).
What's missing from my list? What works best for you?