Solutions Marketing: How to Manage a Successful Thought Leadership Program

An Interview with Michael Brenner, VP of Marketing and Content Strategy at SAP Solutions, in a B2B context, are typically offerings that are complex, high value and intangible. Using traditional push marketing techniques that are more commonly used for product marketing hasn’t been viewed as very effective. To position solutions that address problems with a customer’s business or technical operations, thought leadership messages and content have proven to be a much better approach.

Michael Brenner, Vice Presidents of Marketing and Content Strategy at SAP, has recently taken over responsible for the company’s thought leadership initiatives. I had the opportunity to talk with Michael about what he considers to be the secrets to success in organizing and implementing a successful Thought Leadership program.

MB: I’m on a mission to create more of the type of content that our customers are looking for in a way that drives actions that helps grow revenue for SAP. We also need to create content that helps our customers navigate the “buying journey”. In addition to just pushing out content, it’s important that our branded thought leadership content be developed and positioned in such a way that we can actually track and measure its impact.
MB: We look to develop content that explains the unique point of view that SAP has, and allows us to tell a story that our customers will find helpful and even at times entertaining.
MB: One of our main initiatives to get our ideas and opinions in front of our customers is through a corporate blog called SAP Business Innovation Site. Our blogs are aimed at business executives and explain how they can use technology to leverage innovation to outperform their competition in a rapidly changing environment.
MB: Most B2B companies that we compete with are great at talking about what they do and why they’re better. We make sure that we talk about what we can do for our customers. We make our customers the heroes of our stories and insight papers. We believe that this shows that we’ve earned the right to claim we’re better in certain areas than the competition. By not talking about ourselves and focusing on customer successes, we’ve set ourselves apart in the blogosphere and have positioned our points of view differently.

For example, on the Business Innovation site, we don’t allow our products or strategy to be the main point of any story. Two recent examples include “Career Advice For My Daughters” and “Why An Executive Leadership Role Isn’t Worth the Sacrifice.” These articles address gender issues in the workplace. On our site, we want to help business executives by giving them non-promotional content. But our brand is associated with that. Do we sell HR software? Yes! But that’s not the point. We want to be viewed as helpful and earn the right to talk about our solutions to complex HR issues.
MB: We have three main objectives for our program. The first is Reach. We’re trying to reach an audience that doesn’t already know who we are, don’t know what we sell, don’t understand why we’re different from the others in our space, and why we’re important to their future success. Since this segment is literally clueless about us and what we can offer them, we have to be completely customer-centric in our content and opinions.

The second objective is Engagement. We’re very interested in getting those who aren’t already engaged with our company to become engaged through the content. We measure this by looking at how much time they spend reading the content, how much time they spend on our website, and how many “likes” and “shares” we get. By the way, since we launched in March, 2012 with this customer-centric approach we’ve seen a much lower bounce rate on our website than we’d expected.

The third objective is Conversion. We track whether we’re actually converting our readers and website visitors to becoming new SAP customers. In addition to tracking them through our lead generation funnel, we’ll also look at how we drive clicks to our SAP store where we sell some of our apps and training services. We also offer a subscription to a daily newsletter where readers can find our blogs and other cutting edge content. We’re be able to track how many subscribers convert to being customers.

MB: I see three main challenges ahead of me. First, we have to constantly fight that center of gravity inside most B2B companies of wanting to talk about what we do and how great we are. We get requests every day from across the company asking us to publish blogs describing our new offerings and hyping why they’re so great. So far, we’ve been able to push back. The art of this job, however, is being able to see when there is valuable new technology or business insights inside of one of these promotional pieces and then re-writing it to be interesting and compelling to those who we’re trying to reach.

The second challenge is maintaining a consistent level of quality in what we produce. Everyone would agree that high quality is critical. The real challenge, however, is balancing the demands of quality and quantity. An effective thought leadership program needs to have a regular cadence, and a level of volume that ensures we have the right messages in front of our audience no matter where they are in their buying cycle. That means, of course, that quantity matters. I’ve always felt that quality and quantity are equally important, and that deadlines are in fact the greatest source of inspiration!

The third challenge is presenting the right thought leadership content at the right time to influence our customers. As I’d mentioned, it’s important to us that we have something that covers all the stages of the buying process. Our solutions-focused thought leadership content will try to address the “who/what/when/where/why" questions that every customer needs answered before they make a purchasing decision. SH: Any final comments about the keys to success in your new thought leadership role?

MB: I’ll be head’s-down every day, sticking to my mantra that our content needs to be about our target audience and their business issues and in no way perceived as promotional. If we can focus on making the customer the hero of our blogs and other content, then we’ll get their attention and ultimately their business.

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