The Role of Thought Leadership in Marketing Solutions at IBM

I’m guessing that it won’t surprise many of you that IBM is considered as a leader in the area of Thought Leadership.  Marketing campaigns like Smarter Planet and Watson have been platforms for great new ideas and innovative thinking within IBM that have addressed critical world issues.  The company is constantly being recognized for their pre-eminence in this area.  For example, in March the company’s outstanding work in Thought Leadership was showcased by Source for Consulting, a leading provider of research for the management consulting market.  IBM’s Global Business Services (GBS) was named the top provider of Thought Leadership materials, along with other IBM initiatives, based upon the quality and impact of the Thought Leadership materials published by the IBM Institute for Business Value.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Peter Korsten who is responsible for the Thought Leadership and eminence for GBS in his role as the Global Leader for the IBM Institute for Business Value.  He is also a Partner and Vice President in GBS’ Strategy and Analytics group.  I wanted to get Peter’s views on the role of Thought Leadership in marketing and selling solutions.  Here are some of the excerpts from my conversation with Peter:

SH: How do you define Thought Leadership?

PK: We try to explore what we call “at and over the horizon” concepts, functions and emerging themes in about 15 industries and all of the major business functions. We identify what is going to happen, what companies are preparing for, and how they plan to differentiate themselves.  We also focus on a set of what we call emerging themes like cloud, business analytics, mobile, social, and security, just to name a few.  Thought Leadership is trying to preview and gain a better understanding of what is at and over the horizon that our customers care about.

SH:  What is the relationship between Thought Leadership and business solutions?

PK:  We believe that no company can survive by simply relying on permanent and continuous product innovation.  What we do see, however, is a growing need to bundle existing products and services together in innovative ways and then deliver them through a variety of formats and channels to meet customer needs.  We also see mass digitization of many goods, articles and services.  Very few industries haven’t been touched by this phenomenon.  “Solutions” is a good word for this bundling of value added services that allow the customer to realize and experience the full value of the products that they purchase.  Examples of this today are groceries that are delivered to your home with recipes that are connected to the types of food that was purchased, or the ways that companies now provide online fitting services for clothes, shoes and other personal items.  And, obviously, the bundling of goods and services becomes more critical to provide a solution to highly complex B2B problems, which is what we do every day at IBM.

SH: How do you measure the impact of Thought Leadership as a part of your solutions marketing activities?

PK: There are many, many metrics that come into play.   For instance, the press coverage that we are able to generate is an important metric. Ten years ago, we would be cutting articles or sending someone a photocopy. These days, impressions have been one of surrogate metrics for visibility and exposure.  We also measure how many speeches have been given on the basis of our thought leadership content – who gave them, where they’re located, what industries they’re in, etc. In addition, we look at how many people clicked on the webpages where we post our Thought Leadership content. Our newsletter readership where we publish a lot of our latest thinking is another communications vehicle that we can measure. All of these different metrics can be aggregated into a rating which we can then use for year-to-year comparisons to see if we’re getting more bang for the buck, so to speak.

SH:  Which types of companies should invest in Thought Leadership programs?  It clearly makes sense for companies like McKinsey, IBM, and others that sell highly complex, intangible offers.  But does it also make sense for companies that sell simpler services or products such as basic chemicals, agricultural products or taxi services?

PK:  While I agree that it’s obviously important to companies like ours, I see a lot of applications to companies that sell all sorts of offerings.  A good example is a company called WD-40.  They sell rust prevention oils for both industrial and home consumer use.  You can now find their products in over 75% of the homes in the U.S.  They’ve come up with over 300 applications of their product.  You could call this Thought Leadership.  The applications that they have discovered go so far beyond the imaginable that it leads the buyer to explore usages that they never would have.  However, I do agree that it’s often more relevant for B2B.  With virtually no exception, any B2B company could benefit by investing in Thought Leadership to support their solutions.

SH: Where do you use Thought Leadership in the marketing cycle for solutions?

PK:   Thought Leadership is used throughout the marketing cycle.  We see where it has an impact in the awareness part of the cycle all of the way up to the actual delivery of the solution.

SH: Of course I have to ask you what your biggest challenges are!

PK: It’s ensuring that as many people as possible across IBM take advantage of the Thought Leadership assets that we create. I’ve been happy to see that there has been a continuous increase in the use of our content over the years.  Another major challenge, of course, is finding the next “big thing”.  You can’t have a successful Thought Leadership program without coming up with leading thoughts!

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